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John Cain 1931–2019: Farewell to a giant of the profession

John Cain 1931–2019: Farewell to a giant of the profession

By Carolyn Ford

Legal Biography 

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Former Victorian Premier John Cain died on 23 December, aged 88. His landmark reforms and visionary leadership – of the LIV, the legal profession and the state – are remembered here. 

John Cain was president of the LIV in 1972 to 1973. He was the fourth president to also serve as Victorian attorney-general. Sir John Davies was the first, Sir Arthur Robinson the second and Bill Slater the third. Mr Cain remains the only president to also serve as state premier (1982-1990).

Mr Cain was born in Melbourne, the son of John Cain senior, leader of the Labor Party in Victoria from 1937 to 1957 and three times premier. Educated variously at Northcote High School and Scotch College, in 1952 Mr Cain graduated in law from Melbourne University. After completing articles with Galbally’s he established his own solicitor’s practice in Preston. There, the booming post-war economic times enabled him to quickly build up a successful community practice. Operating as an amalgam, he did many appearances in local courts at Preston, Northcote, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Coburg, Heidelberg and Melbourne. The caseload was typical of a suburban practice at the time: crime, divorce, maintenance, motor accident damages claims and workers’ compensation, as well as conveyancing and a little probate.

A feature of the early years of the practice was that it opened on Monday evenings and on Saturday mornings. Local clients included the Aboriginal Advancement League and the Chamber of Commerce. At its height, the practice employed 12 to 14 staff.

In the late 1960s Mr Cain was invited to join the LIV Committee of Management by John Dawson. In 1967 he joined the LIV Council and served until 1976. He was president in 1972 to 1973. In the period 1973 to 1976 he was also an executive member of the Law Council of Australia. For the time, he was a radical lawyer within a cautious LIV that had not yet adopted a wider community/social commentary role. His major legacy from his time at the LIV was his encouragement to Bernard Teague and Tony Smith to reform the disciplinary process, making it more independent and transparent.

Mr Cain entered parliament in 1976 as the Labor member for Bundoora in the Legislative Assembly. He was elected premier for the first of three terms in 1982, having already led an active life in Labor politics. An activist premier, a number of his social reform initiatives brought him into conflict with the LIV in its role representing the interests of solicitors. These initiatives included freedom of information laws, consumer protection in conveyancing (s32 vendor’s statement), reformed workers’ compensation (Workcare) and the introduction of no-fault personal motor car injury insurance (Transport Accident Commission). Less controversial was his establishment in 1982 of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, restructuring of the magistracy, introducing plain English legislative drafting and establishing the Victorian Law Reform Commission. Mr Cain stood down as premier in 1990. His public service since then has included a trusteeship of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, presidency of the Library Board of Victoria and membership of the Commonwealth Secretariat Observer team for the first post-apartheid South African national election in 1994. He was married to Nancye. They had three children and 10 grandchildren. Son Judge John Cain became State Coroner in December last year.

In 1998 Mr Cain was honoured by the LIV with the award of a life membership. It was 25 years since he had been president.

Legal tributes

The essentially decent and honest man. He insisted on openness and candour from his ministers and staff. When he asked me to assist with his portfolio as Attorney-General he required disclosure of all my shareholdings and interests. I must say I was delighted to supply the same, but not quite so delighted with his response – “Thank heaven you are not advising the Treasurer”.

Largely unacknowledged is John’s reform of the magistracy. Up until his time it had been the preserve of justices of the peace and a gerontocracy of former clerks of courts. Neither had any formal or little legal education, but were rich in hubris and bias. This single reform has brought justice to tens of thousands of Victorians who now rightly expect to be dealt with by independent judicial officers in the jurisdiction where most people meet the law. 

– Howard Nathan, retired Supreme Court judge, led the Attorney-General’s department for 18 months, 1982-83, when Premier John Cain was also Attorney-General

John Cain was a dear friend and colleague from my first days as an LIV Council member until I greeted him in December at his son John’s formal welcome as Coroner.

He mentored me wisely. He was a very empathic listener. Our liaison led to my early involvement in the challenge of setting out to campaign for the reform of legal disciplinary processes with Tony Smith.

At no time have I had political aspirations, but John and I kept in touch after he left the Council.

Like David Jones, I doubt I would have been appointed a judge if John had not been premier, although Attorney-General Jim Kennan did the asking.

And later, it was John junior who rang me to ask if I would chair the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires.

Another major factor in our friendship continuing at length was that Nancye and my wife Patrice became close through their involvement in charity work.

I will greatly miss him.

– Bernie Teague, LIV president (1978 and 1986) and first solicitor appointed a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court

I started working for John as a media adviser when I was 24. He hated pomposity and told us all to call him John. He was decent, he had integrity, he worked hard and was a reformer. 

I travelled with him on many country trips, to bushfire areas, drought, floods, Alcoa in Portland. When he had morning tea or lunch, put on by the locals, he’d ask me to reimburse them – often not possible as they had made the scones.

I remember FOI laws, the DPP, Southbank, the Arts Centre and the Tennis Centre, all his initiatives. He championed equal opportunity and abolished the line for women at Flemington and other sports clubs. 

He stood up for what he believed in and tried to make people’s lives better. There will never be another like him. They were different days.

– Kerry O’Shea, LIV head of public affairs, media adviser then chief of staff in John Cain’s media unit 1982–1987

John Cain loved the law. He saw a properly functioning legal system as a way of improving people’s lives. Consequently, he immersed himself in every aspect of the law. Whether it be in the law practice he set up and managed for nearly 20 years, or his involvement with the LIV Council or the Victorian Law Reform Commission he knew the law had to evolve to meet people’s needs. Even when studying, he immersed himself in the law students football team . . . my late father Frank Hulls was in the same team.

These real life experiences no doubt gave John the roadmap for his extraordinary reform agenda when he became Victoria’s 41st premier. He invigorated and modernised this state and reformed the law and our legal institutions to ensure that people like the clients at his Preston law firm could fully participate in society. Those clients, and the rest of us, owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

– Rob Hulls, director, Centre for Innovative Justice, RMIT University, Victorian Attorney-General 1999–2010 

John Cain was a great boss. He was on his way to open one of Melbourne’s first resort style apartment buildings on St Kilda Road, which symbolised the economic recovery. As the premier’s car approached the venue, he asked me to pass him the speech. I had left it in the office. There was a long silence. He said, “No matter, it’ll be fine". He gave an impromptu speech that was better than the speech I’d written. 

He had a major impact on my life and was my role model in my legal career that commenced after working for him. He was caring, he listened carefully to his advisers and challenged our ideas. He stared down opposition from the establishment and stuck up for those denied a voice. He saw the accident compensation system was an unfair lottery and needed drastic reform. Injured had to prove negligence in court before getting compensation. A no-fault system was proposed to great opposition. He stuck to his guns, introducing a no-fault system for all but retaining the right to sue for those severely injured. OH&S reforms followed. His legacy is the reform agenda he implemented as premier, much of which is still in place today.

– Bill O’Shea, LIV president 2003, ministerial adviser and speechwriter for Premier John Cain 1983–1986

John Cain and I joined the LIV Council about the same time (1967) and were close friends thereafter. For a sole suburban practitioner his commitment to the LIV was extraordinary. Areas like personal injury litigation and disciplinary processes were areas where he led reform. He was an outstanding president who provided great leadership to the LIV. He also led reform nationally on the LCA. It was inevitable he would go into politics following his father and became the longest serving Labor premier. Among his achievements I rank FOI (transparency in government), TAC (looking after people in motor accidents) and the DPP (keeping criminal justice independent of politics) very highly. On a personal level I valued his friendship and wise counsel. He had a major impact on my career appointing me the first solicitor to the County Court. To sum up, John never changed. A kind and generous man of the utmost integrity. Humble with no ego, nothing to prove. He was liked and respected in the community regardless of people’s political allegiances. John Cain was one of the LIV’s greatest leaders and members. 

– David Jones, LIV president 1977–78 and the first solicitor appointed a judge of the County Court

John Cain commenced his articles in 1953 at the firm John W and Frank Galbally. He was articled to John Galbally (Jack), then Minister For Electrical Undertakings in the Cain snr government. 

John shared an office with Fred Lester and Norman O’Bryan (later a Supreme Court judge), who was articled to Frank Galbally at that time.

John remained with the firm for three years after his articles and regularly appeared in the Magistrates’ Court, mostly in the criminal law field where he excelled as an advocate. The firm was developing a common law personal injury practice which John helped establish. He said he learned much from briefing the leaders of the Bar at the time, Rob Monaghan, Jack Barry, John Starke, Jack Cullity and Jim Gorman, all barristers used by the firm at that time. 

John left to set up his practice in Preston. He remained in close contact with the firm, which became Galbally & O'Bryan. 

When speaking of John, Frank said he was an exceptionally hard working and capable employee who related very well to clients. He was very sorry to see John leave the firm and they remained close friends throughout their lives. 

– Peter O’Bryan, former managing partner Galbally & O’Bryan

John Cain lead a reforming, progressive Labor government, driven by his life-long commitment to law reform as a solicitor and president of the LIV.

His landmark reforms included introducing an independent Director of Public Prosecutions, the Freedom of Information Act 1982, establishing the Victorian Law Reform Commission, introducing plain English legislative drafting, rewriting many Victorian statutes into a more efficient and user-friendly form, such as the Planning and Environment Act 1987, and overhauling public administration in Victoria.

Many of these ground-breaking reforms were followed by other states and by the Commonwealth. 

John’s commitment to the great state of Victoria continued long after his premiership ended, and he provided moral leadership and advice to many, including me, throughout his retirement.

John Cain was a man of vision and great integrity. He was an inspiring leader and it was my great privilege to work for his government. We will miss him.

– Mark Dreyfus QC MP, Shadow Commonwealth Attorney-General, ministerial adviser to Attorney-General Jim Kennan in the Cain government, 1985–1987

My first recollection of John Cain was when he appeared in magistrates’ courts in the inner northern suburbs. He was always incredibly well prepared. John told me it was important to arrive at court early and “be on good terms with the clerk of courts to find out how the magistrate was going”.

My next contact with John was in 1974 when he was on LIV Council, when I spoke in support of my application to be appointed CEO of the LIV. 

After he became premier of Victoria in 1982, John used the LIV Executive as a sounding board for ideas or political proposals, and these discussions were invaluable.

I left the LIV in 1986 and was appointed Commissioner for Corporate Affairs. It was a sensitive period. A hot potato was the Pyramid scandal. There was a meeting in the Premier’s office late at night when John decided that things would only get worse and it was decided to pull the plug. He was right.

I last saw him on 31 October at the launch of Simon Smith’s history of the legal profession. 

John was just a thoroughly decent man who believed that honesty and politics could be comfortable travelling companions.

– Gordon Lewis, LIV CEO 1975–1986 and former County Court judge 

In recent years I’ve seen a good deal of John Cain and I regarded him as a great friend and adviser. 

Having been an LIV president it was natural that when he became premier he would have a keen interest in legal issues. His decision to take on both roles – premier and A-G – lead to some criticism from opponents. It was a lively time and he moved quickly on FOI and the OPP reforms, which were supported by the LIV.

By 1985 the government moved on personal injury compensation for motor vehicle accidents. It removed common law damages entirely with only the right to damages for seriously injured retained, a compromise – seeds sewn by the LIV – achieved after a robust controversy in which the premier was personally heavily involved.

In 1998 he was awarded honorary life membership of the LIV, which delighted him. He retained a distinct interest in the position of the profession and was deeply concerned about the diminished role of the LIV in maintaining professional standards. He regularly attended meetings of past presidents and his opinions have been most eagerly sought as recently as a few days before the stroke which led to his death. I will greatly miss his company.

– Ian Dunn, LIV president 1987–1988, and CEO 1996-2002, and friend of John Cain

The Cain family has a long history with the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). One major interaction relates to the admission of women as members of the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC). Dr Donald Cordner had tried to get this issue on the club agenda as early as 1973 and 1976, but his motions lapsed for want of a seconder. John Cain had a clear view that the MCG was the “people’s ground” and with Donald Cordner now chair of the Women’s Affairs Committee and strongly advocating the public responsibilities of the MCC, by 1983 women were admitted to the previous all male members pavilion, and in 1984 the first women were admitted as full members of the MCC.

The Cain government overhauled Victoria’s coronial arrangements and established the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. In his speech opening the Coronial Services Centre in Southbank in August 1988, John Cain spoke of the founding idea of the Institute: that service, nourished by the provision of teaching and research, would elevate forensic medicine to the same level of medicine generally. As well as benefits to justice, public health would benefit from findings from autopsies and from coronial investigations of preventable deaths. This policy has demonstrably delivered.

– Professor Stephen Cordner, head of international programs at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine 

John Cain was a man of immense integrity and rare humanity. He was decent in every way. John’s contribution to the legal profession was immense. His contribution to creating a modern Victoria was even greater. John helped fashion Victoria as a place of progressive values and common sense in improving the lives of everyday Victorians. Rare for the time, John was also passionate about the full equality of women in Victorian society – an ongoing project. I am proud to continue on the path that John blazed to ensure that more women lead the Victorian legal profession and have their contributions to the law properly recognised.

– Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy 


This tribute was compiled by Carolyn Ford and includes an edited extract from Solicitors and the Law Institute in Victoria 1835–2019: Pathway to a Respected Profession by Dr Simon Smith. Mr Cain spoke at the book's launch on 31 October 2019. It was the last official LIV function he attended.


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