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Welcome for Judge Fiona Todd, County Court of Victoria

Welcome for Judge Fiona Todd, County Court of Victoria

By LIV Media


May it please the Court.

I appear on behalf of the Law Institute of Victoria and the solicitors of this state to welcome Your Honour Fiona Todd as a judge of the County Court of Victoria.

We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation and pay our respects to their Elders, past and present, and to any Elders with us today.

I also acknowledge that their sovereignty to this land was never ceded and they were forcibly dispossessed of it. I acknowledge the ongoing harm this has caused. As a profession we ought all be keenly aware of the impact of our national history on its first nations people.

On a personal note I wish to thank the Law Institute and its president Ms Tania Wolf in particular for granting me the privilege to appear on behalf of the solicitors of the state today. I couldn’t be happier or more proud than to be appearing at Your Honour’s welcome.

As indicated by Mr Hallowes in a part probably written by Ms Beech Your Honour had a successful career prior to deciding to enter into law.

Following your graduation from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1993 Your Honour swiftly obtained a range of roles in the theatre. You received numerous rave reviews in the media for your various performances on stage. Having now taken a position as a judge hearing criminal cases you can kiss those good bye.

You were not only cast in various productions but were a founding member of the 11th Hour Theatre Company.

When you made the decision to move to the law you did so with the pedigree Mr Hallowes has spoken about. Your late father, barrister Robert Todd, AM, was a specialist in administrative law, serving as deputy president and a senior member of the Commonwealth Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

You have said that deep down he imbued in you “a love of people behaving justly toward each other”. In this one line much is revealed about the way in which Your Honour lives your life and conducts yourself professionally.

In the late 1990s, you began a Bachelor of Arts degree at Deakin University, initially studying journalism, media and literature part-time – before later embarking on your law degree. Throughout this period you continued to be busy within the theatre.

On an intellectual level, Your Honour discovered what you call “the structural beauty of legal thinking”.

Law has, you say, a discipline, a “beautiful architecture, a beautiful shape”, and it opened to you a new way of thinking.

One looks forward to Your Honour identifying that beauty the next time a self represented sovereign citizen appears before you.

In early 2006, after graduating with Honours in Law, you gained a position as an associate in the Victorian Supreme Court with Justice Stuart Morris who, like your father, was an administrative law specialist.

During that period you volunteered your time at the Fitzroy Legal Service – you have, from the outset given generously of your time to those seeking access to justice.

When Justice Morris resigned from the Bench in early 2007, you commenced your legal career in earnest with the criminal defence team at Robert Stary Lawyers, now Stary Norton Halphen – if anyone needs the spelling or details of that firm please do let me know.

It was during those years that many things were put in train that would shape the brilliant legal career which you have had so far.

Although it is fair to say it wasn’t the smoothest transition from Supreme Court Associate to criminal solicitor. For one – upon arrival at the firm’s then Footscray headquarters there was no one other than the secretaries to greet you.

You were asked multiple times by one particularly beloved secretary whether you were a student doing work experience.

Whilst we have heard that your acting training has assisted you in your career as an advocate – that overlooks its most significant impact – the development of Your Honour’s ability to do impressions.

Your Honour’s impression of that particular secretary repeatedly asking you “Are you at Monash, are you darl?” still amuse to this day.

Your Honour was immediately exposed (after it was confirmed you were not a student) to the cut and thrust of the criminal law. You were thrown into the deep end and swam with aplomb.

Not only did you deal with countless summary matters and what might be called run of the mill indictable cases Your Honour was also involved in some of the biggest cases of that period.

The Pendennis terrorist trial and the Tamil Tigers case (I trust that Your Honour has kept the white tiger you were given as a gift by your client at the conclusion of that case) were massive endeavours.

They required mastery of not simply mountains of materials but new and complex laws – all with the overlay – particularly in the Pendennis trial – of public antipathy combined with clients who saw you – a white female – as part of the problem.

Your Honour dealt with those matters with the combination of strength, tenacity, hard work and decency for which you are known.

During those years Your Honour also learned of the vagaries of the draw – the significance of the person you were appearing before.

Two examples illustrate the point.

On one occasion Your Honour had fought out a difficult bail application before a Magistrate known for lenient sentences and poor treatment of lawyers. During the course of the application (I know this because Your Honour was so incensed you obtained a copy of the tape to play to people so we would believe you) you were required to explain to the Magistrate that the President of the Court of Appeal is a member of a superior court and that meant what he had said ought to be followed. You were also treated generally awfully and rudely.

Your Honour completed the application – which due to your tenacity and skill was in the end successful.

With your usual poise and professionalism you dealt with the grateful client and his family and returned to your office.

Whereupon you vented your frustrations by laying down on the floor kicking and screaming.

On another occasion Your Honour appeared for one of three co-accused at a suburban Magistrates Court – they were all pleading guilty to having defrauded a charity which they were supposed to be assisting.

Together with Your Honour for one of the other accused was Andrew Halphen an experienced practitioner who had even back then appeared in countless pleas.

The third accused was represented by a completely green junior solicitor who soon after left the criminal law.

That solicitor’s client went home that afternoon after signing their undertaking to be of good behaviour – while Your Honour and Mr Halphen both waited around to apply for appeal bail.

Sometimes even skill and brilliance such as yours aren’t enough.

Your Honour has been to many an incredibly supportive colleague. The friendships that you made during your time as a solicitor have endured. It was a wonderful group of people that you started out with and I am privileged to have been part of it. To have been able to be both here today and in Canberra on the day of Peta Murphy’s inaugural speech is a genuine thrill.

The consistent theme from the many solicitors who briefed you during your time at the bar is that you were not only brilliantly smart but that you were generous – both in the sense of providing advice but also in listening and being prepared to take on ideas.

Again this quality of being able to listen and consider different views is vital in a good judicial officer.

Your Honour’s family life has been rich intellectually. Both your upbringing and your adult family life have had learning at their centre. Your choice of life partner Guy Coffee has been consistent with this intellectual bent.

As an illustration of this I can recall meeting with you on the South Coast of NSW while on holiday. We all tramped down to the beach for a swim and a relax. My reading material – if there were any – was likely the Warrick Todd diaries or perhaps something by Max Walker. Guy came armed with both a text book on post war infrastructure reconstruction and a pencil with which to annotate it.

Despite your huge intelligence both Your Honour and Guy carry it lightly and with humility.

Your Honour’s intellectual bent included development of the cat in the box theory once a jury retires. The cat – according to Schrodinger’s thought experiment – is, prior to the box being opened both alive and dead. One’s client is at that time both guilty and not guilty. I will miss receiving texts from Your Honour which say ‘the cat is in the box – coffee?’ I will also miss receiving texts upon acquittal which say ‘viva la pussy cat’.

Your Honour has, as has been said, a love of language. Your use of it both written and oral has always been impressive. Although on occasion it may not always have been appreciated by the listener.

In a plea hearing many years ago in the Magistrates’ Court Your Honour was acting for a union member who together with some other comrades had engaged in a rather dangerous vehicular pursuit of some ‘scabs’ from the West Gate through the tunnel.

Despite the Magistrate indicating already that he was with you on penalty – Your Honour couldn’t resist telling him that your client had taken up mountain bike riding as a “more constructive outlet for his exuberance”. His Honour appeared bewildered.

Your Honour’s experience is rounded and will ensure you are well placed to act as a judge. Your Honour has not only defended but prosecuted – on behalf of Work Safe. Your Honour will also have the capacity to understand the view point of victims – having played that role from time to time on Blue Heelers.

It has been in defence however where you have acted for such a very wide range of people in a very wide range of matters – from terrorism, to murder, from rape to art fraud (the only time a Whitely has adorned the walls of the Court 3 of the Supreme court – or has it?), from the wretched to the wealthy and most problematically the decent and the innocent.

In one of your final cases Your Honour appeared for an incredibly decent man charged with bizarre historical sex allegations. Your Honour was never a drinker of the defence Kool-Aid but you were, rightly in my view, convinced of his innocence.

Your Honour bore the burden of defending those allegations with such wonderful strength and skill fearing throughout that an innocent man may be convicted on your watch. That he was not was due to Your Honour’s work. It was a matter which clearly had an impact on you and the gratitude of the client and his family to you was more palpable than almost any other I have ever seen.

It is not necessarily the high profile matters that leave the biggest mark.

As Mr Hallowes has already said we are in the unusual position of having already gained an understanding of what sort of judge you will be.

You have moved swiftly from your first week during which you felt compelled to justify a later start time you were setting due to a concern you had that the accused might struggle to get out of bed in time. Your Honour changed mid-sentence upon realising you were in fact in charge to say “I’m minded to start slightly later on Friday to enable……because I am so minded”.

From there you have conducted many pleas, appeals and a trial which has been aborted and re-run.

The consistent reports of Your Honour’s fairness, intelligence and courtesy are far from surprising. Clearly you will be not only a good judge – but a great one.

May it please the court.

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