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Farewell to Judge John Hassett

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Cite as: (2002) 76(11) LIJ, p.31

Judge John Hassett was farewelled from the County Court at a ceremony on 7 October. Among the speakers was Law Institute treasurer Judith Peirce. An edited version of her speech follows.

On behalf of the solicitors of the state, I seem to be strangely suffering the effects of the cab-rank rule, at least in being last in a very long queue of those wishing your Honour all the best for retirement.

Throughout your career, you have strived to be scrupulously fair to all those appearing before this Court.

In 1953, you joined the state public service and asked another employee which department to join in order to get a transfer to Bendigo to be with your family. The choice lay between the Mental Hygiene Department, as it was called then, and the Law Department of this Court.

Thankfully for us all here today, you chose the law. At the age of 20, you worked at Galbally’s as a law clerk and completed the necessary studies to matriculate at the time and then start a part-time law course. Your Honour was articled to Ken Fraser of Gair & Brahe, and as we have heard, enrolled with the last group of students to do the articled clerk’s course at the University of Melbourne.

Matt Walsh, a former president at the Institute, a friend and a fellow student in those days, was even then firmly convinced your Honour would end up sitting on the Bench.

Mr Walsh sadly can’t be here today but sends his best wishes.

He described your Honour as having a deep, gravelly voice, which resounded with authority, especially in class. This could be disconcerting at lectures because you were always coming up with points which cast doubt on the proposition put by the lecturer.

Mr Walsh said that he could not quite remember whether your observations caused anyone in the class to fail.

I cannot resist retelling a story that emerged at your Honour’s welcome. As an articled clerk, you and another clerk were ordered out to deliver over 2000 summonses for arrears of rates. As you rang the bell at one house, summons in hand, you heard someone inside say: “and then I shot him”.

When you handed over the summons, the occupants ran out and made various threats. Your Honour’s car was chased and eventually run off the road. It was proof that work as a clerk – indeed a solicitor – has elements of danger. It wasn’t quite “the year of living dangerously” – but it was close.

Your Honour was admitted to practice on 2 March 1967. Your Honour later became a partner in the firm of Walter and Hassett. Many of your clients at the time included painters and dockers, and wharfies. At your Honour’s welcome, it was revealed that your Honour acted for one of the great train robbers, Ronald Biggs, in selling his story to the media. At your welcome, it was described as thus:

“The surreptitious changing of cars, appearing first on one side of the river, crossing to the other and waiting for a man involved in the meeting with Biggs to emerge from the bushes, must have attracted your Honour to the schemes and tactics of the law.”

As the then president of the Institute, David Miles, observed at the time, a pleasing aspect of your appointment was that more than half of your 27 years in the law at that time had been spent as a solicitor.

Your Honour’s contribution to the Institute has been recognised. You were a foundation member and one-time president of the South-east Solicitors Group which is now referred to as the South Suburban Law Association. Your Honour has considerable experience as a law clerk, as well as a city, suburban and country solicitor, both in private practice and as a prosecutor for the queen. The solicitors of this state have always looked to a judiciary which remains steadfastly independent of the state and unrelentingly committed to applying the rule of law. Your Honour has provided that and has always maintained insight and analysis, and thoroughness in judgments.

Your Honour has taken a leadership role at this Court and you have met the challenges presented. Your Honour has brought to the Bench a long experience in criminal law and in never losing sight of the ordinary person.

As you know, a judge’s role is to serve the community in the pivotal role of administering justice according to law. Your Honour has carried out that task admirably.

The security which each of us has is the law. There remains a cautionary note by Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.

“This country’s plated thick with laws from coast to coast . . . and if you cut them down . . d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

As has already been acknowledged, your Honour should also be congratulated for the work done in setting up this wonderful building, which has rightfully taken pride of place in Melbourne’s legal precinct and set a new standard for courts throughout Australia.

On behalf of the Institute, I wish your Honour a long and happy retirement.

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