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Welcome to Judge Phillip Coish

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Cite as: (2002) 76(10) LIJ, p.26

Recently appointed County Court Judge Phillip Coish was welcomed to the County Court at a ceremony on 16 September 2002. Among the speakers was Law Institute treasurer Judith Peirce. An edited version of her speech follows.

Your Honour’s elevation to this Court is regarded as a first-class appointment. You are considered a “quiet achiever” – despite being an enthusiastic Collingwood supporter.

Your Honour was educated at Melbourne Grammar and studied economics at the University of Melbourne, receiving a Bachelor of Commerce in 1977. You then went on to study law at Monash University and graduated in 1980.

In relation to your Honour’s education, it is worth remembering the words of the French dramatist Jean Giradoux, who said: “There is no better way to exercise the imagination than the study of the law. No artist can ever interpret nature as freely as a lawyer interprets the truth.”

Your Honour served articles at Lander & Rogers and was admitted to practice in mid 1982. You signed the bar roll in November 1982.

I am reliably informed that you were well respected by Ted Hill, the doyen of workers compensation barristers and well-known communist party leader.

Ted Hill, who was known for his sharp legal mind and brilliance in court, would often accept briefs on one condition. He was heard to say: “If you can get that fellow Coish as my junior, I will do it.”

For some years, your Honour had a thriving appellate practice in which you barely spoke a word. The Accident Compensation Act established medical panels as statutory tribunals to provide medical opinions. The physicians constituting those medical panels insisted on being represented in applications to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, concerning proceedings before them.

However, the High Court had held in the case of Hardiman that in such applications for a prerogative writ to a tribunal, the tribunal should not normally present any substantive argument to the Court, but should simply submit to such order as the Court may make.

In all these proceedings your Honour would simply announce your appearance on behalf of the medical panel, and then sit mute, waiting patiently for the conclusion of proceedings so as to be able to endorse your back-sheet with the order and, of course, your fee.

It was like the three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil and certainly speak no evil. In effect, your Honour was paid to shut up.

Your Honour also developed a formidable circuit practice in Gippsland, representing workers, employers and insurers alike.

Your accommodation on circuit was as varied as your clients’. You were equally at home in the up-market “Power’s court” north of Sale, or staying at a run-down, isolated farmhouse south of Sale.

The farmhouse was occupied by a friend who had known better times. Your Honour would stay there with a circuit colleague. The tank water was undrinkable, but you would provide a safe alternative from the town’s licensed grocer.

Your Honour’s sleeping quarters at this farm was the built-in veranda, which you shared with the farm dog, until the temperature dropped below zero, at which point the dog would move back inside by the fire. Your Honour is literally a man for all seasons, or at least for all temperatures.

Your Honour broadened the scope of your practice into civil and administrative actions, appearing in the Federal Court, and on appeal to the Full Court of the Federal Court, and in an application for special leave to appeal to the High Court.

Your Honour is known to have a keen sense of humour. However, you are able to maintain good defences to outsiders with the result that anecdotes are hard to come by.

Stories may be in short supply but not caricatures. As a young boy, your Honour was drawn by the former Herald cartoonist Weg featuring a full set of gleaming teeth.

The only time that your smile disappeared for any length of time was when the workers compensation system was dismantled when Jeff Kennett was swept into power.

Your Honour, we are reliably informed, sat at home for some time and contemplated the future. You thought that your practice would go into a nose-dive and there were those urging an alternative career path in the law. However, your forbearance was rewarded and before long your Honour was back on top.

We have been told that you already have the judicial air that comes from sitting on this esteemed Bench. In fact, you have always recognised the distinction between being a barrister and a judge. Woodrow Wilson might well have been referring to that difference when he remarked: “I used to be a lawyer, but now I am a reformed character.”

On behalf of the solicitors of Victoria, I congratulate you on your appointment to this Court, and I wish your Honour a long and distinguished career.

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