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Obituary: John Harber Phillips

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Cite as: October 2009 83(10) LIJ, p26

18 October 1933 - 7 August 2009

Former Victorian Supreme Court Chief Justice John Harber Phillips was honoured at a state funeral on 14 August. Victorian Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Warren was one of the speakers at the funeral.

John Harber Phillips: sometimes John, sometimes "JH", never just John Phillips.

His lifemap reveals a pathway with personal landmarks surrounded by rich forests of many achievements.

Matriculating from De La Salle College, graduating from the University of Melbourne in law, admission and practice as a solicitor, signing the roll of the Victorian Bar, joining the Middle Temple of the English Bar and rising to become a leading criminal barrister and the first criminal specialist to be appointed Queen's Counsel in Victoria.

The distinguished career continued as he climbed the mountains laid out in his lifemap - the first Director of Public Prosecutions, a puisne Supreme Court judge, chair of the National Crime Authority and Federal Court judge. He reached the peak of those mountains when appointed to the highest state judicial office as Chief Justice of Victoria.

As John Harber Phillips stepped his way he was a conscious environmentalist taking in his surroundings and seeking to contribute to them. He was constantly active in the celebration of the arts, literature, culture, education and forensic science. He was inquisitive and wanted to remain aware. Conversations with people he encountered often ended with his request: "Do keep me informed" - and they did.

His lifemap has enduring landmarks: the world leading Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine; the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre; the Judicial College of Victoria; and the Victorian Women Lawyers.

These institutions and many others are demonstrative of his environmental awareness, his commitment to a wider, balanced life beyond the rigours of black letter law.

The environmental awareness of John Harber Phillips was amply shown in his term as Chief Justice.

He brought the courts to the people through openness and his pursuit of education. He:

  • welcomed media coverage of the courts;
  • engaged in public speaking;
  • commenced court open days; and
  • promoted school tours (now as part of his legacy thousands of school students go through the courts each year).

He made the courts more responsive to community expectations. He:

  • highlighted victims' place and rights in the criminal justice system; and
  • facilitated Court Network to support and comfort people who come to courts - victims, families and witnesses.

He promoted recognition and equality for women in the legal profession as lawyers, barristers, senior counsel, judges and magistrates. The representation of women at the higher levels of judicial office is one of his significant landmarks.

John Harber Phillips took the courts to the wider modern world through regional, national and international visits and exchanges.

Significantly, he was a multi-culturalist and enriched the courts by opening them to the Greek, Italian and French communities.

His lifemap landmarks were constantly crafted and achieved with his dear wife Helen. Together they were always the most warm and welcoming hosts to newcomers to their environment. The presence today of so much of the present and retired judiciary and their partners is a tribute to the affection in which Helen Phillips is held.

John Harber Phillips once told me: "I am just a dumb, Irish, 'Mick' lawyer". He smiled, rolled his eyes and chuckled. He was humble but resilient. He did not believe in verbal combat or confrontation. He believed it best to let things sort themselves out - and, usually they did.

John Harber Phillips was a kind, humane and gentle man. He liked ordinary people and showed them warmth and compassion.

We are in his debt.

John Harber Phillips

  • Education: Presentation Convent, Murrumbeena; De La Salle College, Malvern
  • Tertiary: LLB from University of Melbourne
  • Articles: Dooley & Breen, Solicitors, 1958
  • Joined the Bar in 1959
  • Member of Victorian Bar Council 1974-1984
  • Took silk in 1975
  • Member of Bar of England, Middle Temple 1979
  • Victoria's first Director of Public Prosecutions 1983-1984 (First DPP in any Australian jurisdiction)
  • Victorian Supreme Court Justice 1984-1990
  • National Crime Authority chair and a Federal Court Justice 1990-1991
  • Appointed 10th Victorian Supreme Court Chief Justice 1991
  • Appointed by the Governor-General Companion in the Order of Australia for "services to the law, law reform, literature and the visual arts" in 1998
  • Retired as Chief Justice October 2003
  • Provost, Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University 2003-2009
  • National Institute of Forensic Science 1991-2009
  • Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine 1986-2004
  • Author: Advocacy with Honour and The Trial of Ned Kelly and (jointly written) Forensic Science and The Expert Witness
  • Playwright: By A Simple Majority - The Trial of Socrates (1985), Conference with Counsel (1988), The Cab Rank Rule (1996) and Starry Night with Cypresses: The last hours of Vincent Van Gogh (2003)

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