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Farewell of his Honour Judge Michael Phipps

Farewell of his Honour Judge Michael Phipps

By Steven Sapountsis



Address at the ceremonial sitting of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia sitting in Melbourne to farewell His Honour Judge Maurice Phipps, by Steven Sapountsis, President of the Law Institute of Victoria, on Wednesday, 9 November  2016 at 4:15 pm.

  1. May it please the court.
  2. I appear on behalf of the Law Institute of Victoria and the solicitors of this state to farewell Your Honour Judge Maurice Phipps as a judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.
  3. After such a public and consistent acclamation of Your Honour’s many virtues as a lawyer and a judge by my learned friends, it would have been easy for me to simply say “I concur” with what has been said.  However, at the risk of some repetition, I request the Court to bear with me while I put beyond doubt Your Honour’s “niceness” and also illustrate some other qualities that Your Honour has brought to the bench.
  4. After all, if these things are not said this afternoon, there may not be another opportunity to say them in such a public farewell.
  5. By my reckoning, Your Honour is presently the sixth most senior Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, and one who is renowned for his consideration for those who come before your Court, and for a self-deprecating manner. I understand that Your Honour’s own assessment was, and I quote  “I’m a pretty boring person”.
  6. That modest assessment, we submit, belies Your Honour’s record of impeccable judicial service which has been marked by hard work, improving access to justice and always seeking to benefit others. They are indeed admirable judicial qualities and they have also been reflected in Your Honour’s devotion and commitment to your wife, Christine, five children and five grandchildren.
  7. As we have heard, Your Honour attended St Patrick’s College in East Melbourne. It was a small school that the Jesuits had saved from financial strife in the 1860s and, where according to one history, “size, location, clientele and teaching philosophy made it a very special place”. I understand that You Honour acknowledges the positive influence  of that Jesuit education on your approach to the law and the people who come into contact with it.
  8. We have heard that after graduating with a Bachelor of Laws from Monash University, Your Honour was articled to John Raymond Hoban of T.W.Brennan & Co.. The offices of that practice,  in Little Bourke Street, opposite the old High Court registry have been described as “Dickensian” , but articles there served you well.
  9. Mr Hoban had inherited the practice from Thomas William Brennan – political journalist, lawyer and Victorian parliamentarian – who was a friend of Your Honour’s father.
  10. When Your Honour was to read for the bar, , Mr Hoban gave Your Honour Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a most valuable reference that maintained its pride of place on Your Honour’s bookshelves that soon held the burgeoning library of Acts, regulations and codes necessary for Your Honour’s specialised work in the area of building and construction law.
  11. Your Honour’s keen intellect and refined advocacy skills quickly gained Your Honour an outstanding reputation as a “black letter” lawyer. Those abilities were augmented by knowing which end of a hammer to hold,  and by some of Your Honour’s early clients who helpfully explained some of the more complicated technical terms and concepts associated with construction work.
  12. We have heard much about Your Honour’s ability as an advocate and role in making barristers chambers more fairly accessible  to all counsel. Let me here underline the decency with which that work was always done.
  13. It was Justice Richard McGarvie of the Supreme Court of Victoria who recommended to his associate, Elspeth Strong, now Queen’s Counsel and retired from practice,  that she read with Your Honour. That wise suggestion was sealed when Justice McGarvie’s tipstaff told Ms Strong  that:  “Maurice is the nicest guy at the bar”-and, as we know, tipstaves certainly knew their barristers.
  14. Ms Strong recalls Your Honour as balanced, quick and efficient, good humoured and a man and lawyer of integrity - qualities that clearly attracted the attention of the Federal Attorney-General in 2000.
  15. Your Honour was, as we have heard, appointed Queens Counsel in 1990.  You remarked that the application:  “seemed the right thing to do”. Perhaps the Attorney General thought the same in 2000 when he appointed Your Honour to the then recently established Federal Magistrates Court.
  16. An indication of Your Honour’s co-operative and helpful judicial nature came at a meeting of judges who were invited to indicate a preference for venue and nature of work, with almost all firmly expressing choices for both.
  17. Federal Magistrate Murray McInnis (as he was then) recalls that, true to his friend’s character, Your Honour announced that it mattered not where or what work was undertaken.
  18. Such subsuming of personal preference to the good of the Court, led Your Honour to stints in the Dandenong registry on rotation and also on circuit in Gippsland.
  19. It was in Gippsland where local solicitor Jacqui Billings first encountered Your Honour.
  20. Your Honour was required to sit on a trial in the back room of the antiquated Morwell Magistrates Court. Your Honour’s practicality, coupled with typical and helpful  country improvisation overcome the courtroom not having a necessary telephone link.
  21. Your Honour temporarily solved the problem by placing Your Honour’s mobile phone to a speaker.
  22. Further down the highway, at the century-old Traralgon Court House, the deficiencies in the Owen Dixon East building (of which Mr Anastassiou spoke earlier),  must have seemed like mere bagatelles- as it was here  where  either the kettle or the photocopier would work – but not both together – where gigantic heaters blasted like jet engines in winter,  and where rising damp was a condition, not the name of a racehorse.
  23. On one occasion, while swapping over to the kettle during a break, Your Honour’s head struck a shelf, with the resulting gash requiring immediate medical attention.
  24. The parties in the case, unware of the bloodshed, thought Your Honour was on an extended coffee break - until the court resumed and their judge reappeared, head swathed in bandages like a wounded soldier or like one of those brave AFL footballers such as Nick Reiwoldt, and  determined to complete the case.
  25. That, and numerous other examples, showed Your Honour’s preparedness to make the best of the circumstances and conditions available and get on with the job, and always running a fair court with the right combination of gravitas and approachability.
  26. Ms Wilson has mentioned Your Honour’s role in spearheading the Dandenong Project where together, with your brother Judges Michael Baumann, John O’Sullivan and Terry McGuire and court staff, Your Honour introduced new case management procedures in 2010 as part of a broader project.
  27. At the time, there were real and unsettling concerns that Dandenong might close, with judges sitting only on rotation and loyal staff constantly apprehensive about the possible closure of that court.
  28. The court’s high caseload – managed by only two judges when arguably five were necessary - was notable for large numbers of unrepresented litigants and involving complex issues that included family violence, drug and alcohol abuse and financial difficulties.
  29. In this process Your Honour engaged the local  community, and in particular the University clinical  education opportunities and the co-location initiatives of the Department of Families to enhance service delivery.
  30. An evaluation report in 2010, found that the ‘’Dandenong Project” had achieved its priority outcomes.  A 2012 review concluded that the Project delivered many benefits, including early settling of cases , without judicial determination, and with a reduction in required Legal Aid funding.
  31. There remained some issues to deal with, such as long work hours and staff fatigue, but the project had engendered widespread enthusiasm and optimism, and staff felt relieved about a more certain future for the Court.
  32. It is not only Ms Billings who credits Your Honour with having “saved” Dandenong – it is a widely held view.
  33. Also widely held is the assessment of Your Honour  as having an unassuming and consistently pleasant demeanour.
  34. Steve Agnew, the Executive Director Operations of this court, who also worked on the Dandenong Project, speaks genuinely, and for many, when he says that Your Honour will be greatly missed.
  35. Judge O’Sullivan  says that Your Honour demonstrated an on-going capacity to help people in the Dandenong and Gippsland region,  combined with genuine concern for, and understanding of, members of those communities.
  36. A senior brother judge tells of a compassionate judge who helped and supported younger judges and says that “put simply, he is an icon in this Court and will be greatly missed”.
  37. That should be an example and an inspiration for all who follow Your Honour.
  38. On behalf of the Law Institute of Victoria and the solicitors of this State, I wish Your Honour health and happiness in retirement, following Your Honour’s sixteen years of exemplary service to this Court and the people it serves.
  39. May it please the court.

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