James Cook University Law Review
There and Back Again: A Personal Reflection
The Mayo Lecture for 2022
14th October 2022
The Honourable Justice Lincoln Crowley*
I commence this lecture this evening by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land here in Townsville, the Bindal and the Wulgurukaba peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present and to their culture and and customs as traditional custodians of the land. It is good to be here on this country.
I thank the University, the College of Business, Law and Governance and the James Cook University Law Students Society, (JCULSS), for inviting me to present this lecture and to speak to you all this evening.
It is an honour and a privilege to give this annual lecture in honour of the late Mrs Marylyn Mayo. I am especially honoured to join the select company of those who have previously presented this lecture to JCU law students. Past presenters have included distinguished High Court and Supreme Court judges, eminent legal academics and renowned scholars. The various topics of the past Mayo Lectures that have been delivered by those presenters have ranged across diverse subjects, but have always undoubtedly been of interest to those studying law and aspiring to one day practice as lawyers. In each case, I am sure those presentations have informed, entertained and inspired those who have been in attendance.
I hope to achieve at least some of those things.
Unlike many past Mayo Lectures that have been delivered, my lecture this evening will not be in the form of a legal treatise or an academic analysis of substantive law on a topical legal issue. It was suggested to me that I might speak to you about my own journey in the law, from where I started through to where I am today. So, embracing that suggestion, my lecture this evening will be presented as a personal reflection on my own experiences, from studying law and progressing in a career within the legal profession.
In addition to that being a suggested topic for this lecture, my reason for taking this approach is that, whilst I have joined a select group of esteemed speakers who have presented the Mayo lecture, I am uniquely qualified to present this lecture from a perspective that none of my predecessors have possessed.
I grew up in North Queensland. I studied law here, and I am a graduate of the JCU Law School. And, more importantly, I was taught by Marylyn Mayo.
Before I speak to you about my own particular journey in the law, let me start by saying some things about the late Mrs Marlyn Mayo.
Although she was born and raised in New Zealand, Marylyn Mayo was instrumental in establishing the law school here at James Cook University. Throughout her life she was a lawyer, an academic, an active member of the broader Townsville community and a patron of the arts. Above all, she was a great teacher.
Marylyn graduated from the University of Auckland in New Zealand with Bachelor degrees in Law and Arts. She was one of a small group of less than two dozen female law graduates from the university in the 1960s. After graduating, she was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand. She then worked in private practice, before joining the Ministry of Works and Development as Auckland District Solicitor. In 1969, she moved to Townsville to take up a position lecturing in law, at what was then the University of Queensland's Townsville University College. A year later, the University College officially became the James Cook University of North Queensland after the enactment of the James Cook University of North Queensland Act 1970 (Qld).
It was during this period that Marlyn met and later married her husband, Dr John Mayo, who was then a lecturer in economics at JCU.
At that time, there was no law school and no Bachelor of Laws course available at JCU. A College of Business, Law and Governance was not even a distant dream. Marylyn Mayo taught law subjects within the Department of History. Students could complete the first year of a law degree at JCU, but if they wished to obtain their full degree they had to relocate to the University of Queensland in Brisbane, or even further afield to one of the other universities offering law such as the University of Sydney or the University of Melbourne.
This was most undesirable for any North Queenslander and was a deficient state of affairs that Marylyn Mayo worked hard to rectify for many years. As time passed, more law subjects became available to JCU students. Eventually, with the encouragement, support and advocacy of various others, including the late Sir George Kneipp, a former judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland and JCU’s first Chancellor, Marylyn finally succeeded in establishing the Department of Law at James Cook University and the offering of a full law degree in 1989. Marylyn was appointed as the Foundation Head of the School of Law and was its acting Dean until 1990, after which she was replaced by her colleague Professor Kenneth Sutton. Marylyn continued lecturing as an Associate Professor and held the position of Deputy Dean until 1993. She retired from academic life in 1996, but retained a keen interest in the teaching of law and in JCU.
As I am sure you all know, this lecture is an annual event run by the College of Business, Law and Governance in conjunction with the JCULSS. The JCULSS instituted the Mayo Lecture in 1991 as a tribute to Marylyn's work in maintaining a law presence at JCU and, ultimately, in establishing the full law degree here. Although there is no formal stated criteria or terms of reference governing the annual Mayo Lecture, I think its purpose and focus are self-evident. This lecture serves to honour Marylyn Mayo and the outstanding, instrumental contribution she made to this university and the establishment and development of the JCU law school. It also serves as an occasion to honour the JCU law school that has grown in size and stature over the years to become a well-respected institution that produces graduates who are capable of excelling in the legal profession and in the wider field of the law.
I am reasonably sure that as a first-year law student in 1991, I attended the inaugural Mayo Lecture, presented by the then Attorney-General the Honourable Dean Wells. I cannot now recall the subject of the lecture, but I do recall being impressed that the JCU law school was able to secure such a distinguished speaker to present that very first lecture.
Now, I would like to talk about my own personal recollections of studying law at JCU, being taught by Marylyn Mayo and the course my legal career took following graduation. I hope you will forgive me for reminiscing and if some of the details are not quite accurate.
I grew up in my father’s hometown of Charters Towers. When I was at school, every few months my father would drive my brother and I the 130km or so up to the ‘big smoke’ of Townsville, to visit family or to go to the shops. For my brother and I, our preferred destination back then was not Stockland Plaza at Aitkenvale. It was the Flinders Street Mall. The Mall was already in decline by then but still, for us, it was the best place to go. It had dozens of specialty shops. The Angus Smith sports store and foot-long hotdogs from the Cat and Fiddle arcade were some of our favourites when we were younger; and the Playtime clothing store when I was older. The Mall even had a David Jones Department Store. It was also close to our other favourite places to go in the city – the music store in the old T & G building, the Timezone video game arcade and the twin-cinemas on Sturt Street. We could easily spend the whole day in the centre of the city before we had to make the drive over the Mingela Range and across the Burdekin back home. Because my father was in the Army when I was growing up, I had been to Lavarack Barracks several times, but I had never ventured out to Douglas. The only way to get there, of course, was to drive along University Road past Lavarack and the new Annandale housing estate that was being developed and onto Angus Smith Drive. There was no Ring Road.
In 1990, when I finished my senior certificate and graduated from Charters Towers State High School, I had no idea what I was going to do for a job. I did plan on undertaking some form of tertiary education, but had little idea about what course I should do. Law was not really at the forefront of my mind. There had been no legal studies course at my school, and I had no connection to the legal profession and knew very little about the law. I had applied to get into university, but my QTAC selections showed I really did not have a clear idea on what I wanted to do. My six choices were spread as wide as possible to give me the best chance of getting into something, somewhere. I had selected law at JCU as my first option, but after that it was business, nursing, psychology and education at CQU, QUT and UQ. As with many others who end up in the law, my initial choice was guided more by wanting to avoid anything to do with mathematics, rather than a burning desire to become a lawyer.
The wait to find out what course, if any, I would get into had two stages. First, I had to wait for my Tertiary Entrance (TE) score to arrive in the mail. I thought I had done well enough to get into law, but even when my score finally arrived and I had what seemed like a good enough score to qualify, it was still not a sure thing. Next, I had to wait for confirmation of the course I would be offered – which was published in the newspaper. I recall my father waking me early by calling out “You got into your course!” I was relieved, but still a little unsure what course he meant. It was only later when I checked the newspaper that I saw for myself that I had been offered a place to study law at JCU, to commence at the start of the academic year, semester one of 1991.
That was the first year that students at JCU were able to study the full Bachelor of Laws degree course subjects. Second year subjects had been introduced in 1989 when the law school was established. Third year subjects were added the year after in 1990. Fourth year subjects followed in 1991, just in time for me to be able to commence a course that I could complete from start to finish without having to relocate somewhere else to graduate.
So, at the beginning of that year, I prepared to start my first year at university in Townsville. The first thing to do was to find somewhere to live. A handful of others from my school (I think about eight in total) were also going to JCU to study, but none of them were doing law. In fact, I think I was the only one from any school in Charters Towers who was doing law that year. A few from my school had applied for and had been offered accommodation at University Hall, a few others went to Western Halls of Residence, a couple to St Marks and one or two to John Flynn College. It was only when the start of the academic year loomed closer, and I still did not have anywhere to stay, that I put in a late application for Uni Hall. I didn’t get in. It may have been due to the fact that the only passport style headshot I had available to submit with my application was of me scowling and sporting a resplendent mullet hairdo. It looked more like a mugshot. Fortunately, I had a cousin who lived at West End. He had a spare room and said I could stay there. So, a week before the start of the first term, I packed all my gear into the back of my father’s ute and we drove to Townsville. That later became a regular ritual, as I went back home for the holidays at the end of each year, and would then again pack up and return before the start of the new academic year in February the next year.
Once I got to Townsville and had moved into my cousin’s place, the next most important thing to sort out was how I was going to get to Uni from West End each day. I did not have a car, or even a driver’s licence, and I certainly did not have money for the bus. But I did have a bike. Once the first semester of my first year commenced, my regular commute each day was to ride from West End, along Dalrymple Road and up Nathan Street and to follow that all the way out to Douglas and the JCU campus. The distance was about 12km one way. Sometimes, depending on how my timetable was spread, I went out and back in the morning and did it again in the afternoon.
In the Townsville humidity, the novelty soon wore off. I seemed to be spending more time riding my bike than studying. And so, in the second half of the year, I again asked if there were any vacancies at Uni Hall and applied for a room. This time, I was able to add that I knew several other residents there and I was able to trade on their good character and reputation. I got in. Once I moved to University Hall, things then became a lot different for me. Everything was now close at hand and my classes were usually only a few minutes’ walk away, except for the occasional classes we had over in the education lecture theatres over at Western. I was able to spend more time studying and could immerse myself more in university life.
In terms of studying, I always had enough self-motivation to do what needed to be done. However, when I first started at JCU, I didn’t really know much about what needed to be done. In particular, I did not know how to write an academic assignment in the style and to the standard required for university. Fortunately, I had another older cousin who was at that time studying second-year sociology at JCU. I met up with him and he sat down with me one evening and showed me the basics of how to structure an assignment, stressing the importance of making sure it was fully and properly referenced – in Harvard author-date style. That worked fine for the Arts subjects that I was required to take in my first year, but was not so good when it came to my law subjects. If there was something like the Australian Guide to Legal Citation available at that time, I was certainly not aware of it. I cannot now recall how I picked up the necessary knowledge and skills for legal citation and writing law assignments. It may have been through fellow law students, but it was not through my cousin.
I also did not have much of an idea about the legal system and the law when I started studying as a first-year law student. That soon changed, and in large measure that was due to the teaching of Marylyn Mayo. As a first-year law student, my introduction to understanding the legal system and the theory and philosophy of the law came from Professor Mayo’s lectures in the subject LA1002 Elements of Law. I vividly remember sitting in those lectures listening to Marylyn as she taught us about John Stuart Mill’s Principle of Liberty and of Benthamite utilitarianism, and as she outlined for us in great detail the history and development of the common law, and showed us the methodology for case analysis using the acronym ‘FIRAC’ – Facts, Issues, Rules, Application and Conclusion – which I still use today. It was fascinating, and all the more so because of Marylyn’s enthusiasm and the energetic instruction we received from her. She was a formidable woman and a great teacher. Always clear and comprehensive in her tutelage. Always immaculately dressed and presented. And always projecting an energy and passion for the law that inspired her students.
I remember one particularly inspiring moment during an early Elements of Law lecture, it may even have been my first lecture. There were perhaps 130 students in that class. I didn’t know a single one. Professor Mayo was discussing the road ahead and impressing upon us the importance of attending our lectures and tutorials, and dedicating enough time to our studies. This seemed similar to the introductions given by other lecturers in other courses in my first year. But then she said something that really struck me and brought home the need to work hard. She said something like: ‘Look around the room. Only one out of every three of you will make it through this course to graduate at the end.’ I looked around. I did not know any of the other people in my class, nor how I might compare against them in terms of my abilities or aptitude for studying law, but I distinctly remember vowing that I would be one of those who would be there at the end.
To make sure of that, I decided it would be necessary to develop some disciplined study habits and to stick to them. I devised a regular schedule and stuck to it. It worked. I recall at the start of the course being overwhelmed by the amount of required reading, let alone the additional recommended reading, for each subject. It seemed there was far too much to learn and absorb and there was simply not enough time in the day to read everything on the list. I thought that the only way that I could hope to get through it all would be to consistently spend significant blocks of time in the library, working through the required reading list. And so that is what I did.
In those days, cases were not available online on the internet. Everything had to be done manually. I would take the hardcopy printed list of cases to the library. I would set myself up at a carrel and would stay there for half the day. I would then find the necessary volumes of the law reports on the library shelves, half a dozen or so at the time, and I would take them back to the carrel where I would read the relevant cases. As I read the cases, I also made notes of them in the way Marylyn Mayo had instructed. I would make a handwritten case note for each one on a filing card that I kept in a box for later review and study. I kept the box on my desk in my room and would periodically pull out a card and test myself on the details of the case. This was a very time-consuming process and, in comparison with the relative ease with which electronic legal research can be conducted these days, perhaps not very efficient. But, that was how things had to be done and it was those study sessions that really imbued me with a sense and understanding of the law and its rigours, and instilled in me the self-discipline and commitment that I later realised were essential for a successful career in the legal profession. I can still conjure the smell of the pages of the law reports and those giant leatherbound tomes and even today if I were to open one of those old volumes, I would be immediately transported back in time to the library and those long sessions spent reading the cases, sifting the ratio decidendi from the obiter dicta and summarising the facts and key points for my study notes.
This was pretty much how I went about my studies in my first year. Lectures, tutorials and library. Of course, in those days there was really no other option other than to attend classes. There was no live streaming or recorded content available online. There was a very limited option, available only in a handful of classes if you were lucky, where if you had missed a class because of illness or emergency, there was sometimes an audio recording of the lecture on a cassette tape which you could get from the library. Because the law school was newly established and most of the subsequent years’ subjects after first year were only being taught for the first or second time ever, there was also no mystical sets of tried and tested lecture notes complied by previous years’ students floating around that anyone could use as a substitute for attending their classes in person.
After first year, I refined my approach to studying and worked a little smarter (or perhaps found a few more short cuts), but long library sessions remained a constant. In fact, they probably became longer when I realised that I could save a lot of money if I did not buy the recommended textbooks for every subject and instead simply used the books in the library. That meant going to the library, reading the textbooks and making my own handwritten notes of the relevant chapters. I would routinely do this for an entire morning or afternoon and found that I could be productive enough in a half-day session each day. It only became a problem when we would have an open book exam, but that was not very often. In fact, I only ever recall two such exams, one for tax and one for civil procedure.
These days the JCU library is fittingly named the ‘Eddie Koiki Mabo Library’, in honour of Eddie Mabo, a Meriam man from the Torres Strait who had a close association with the university, and whose name and cause are immortalised in Australian legal history by the High Court’s decision in Mabo v State of Queensland (No 2), the landmark 1992 case that recognised native title and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius.
Although I think the Honourable Dean Wells was the Attorney-General at the time, I don’t recall his Mayo Lecture focused on the reasons and rationale for the State’s opposition of Eddie’s claim.
All study back then was of course done without computers. It is not all that long ago, but throughout my entire time at JCU, I did not have a computer for compiling notes, doing research or writing assignments. All note taking was handwritten, whether in class or in the library. That might still be the case for some students today, but how I wish I had had a laptop or an iPad or Surface Pro back then. Researching was mainly a manual task. As with the cases in the law reports, this involved finding the books or journals, photocopying the relevant excerpts or articles (if I could afford it) and taking the collected findings away for further reading and analysis. Assignment writing would also have been much easier with a computer. I do remember submitting at least one handwritten assignment in my first year. It was barely legible, and I did not get a great mark for it. For the most part though, I was able to type my assignments on an electronic typewriter that I had received as a birthday present from my father, right before the start of my first year. It seemed like pretty cutting-edge technology at the time. It could even make corrections without the need for correction tape or liquid paper. Still, it was a slow and cumbersome task to research and write an assignment this way and I never did get the hang of how to do footnotes with the typewriter, so they were still often handwritten.
There were of course computers that were available in the library for researching. If I recall correctly, there were four. If a student wanted to use them for researching, it was a simple process of writing your name down on the reservation list to book your hour-long slot at the next available date and time and then coming back in a week or so when that slot arrived. I think it may have been possible sometimes to book a double session of two hours but that was the absolute limit. Even a double session hardly provided enough time to get much done. These research computers were in high demand, not because you could access the internet and a world of relevant material by entering a few key search terms and a few clicks of the mouse, but because you could load up, by CD ROM, the relevant research database to search for material. Ours were usually the AGIS or APAIS databases. They made researching much easier, but even with this assistance, it was still necessary to find the physical journal articles or items in the library as they did not provide access to an electronic copy. They were just an electronic index that could be searched. And while you could search for and find the bare details of what looked relevant within your one hour at the computer, you then had to see if it actually was relevant when you found it on the shelf.
Nowadays, all of this is of course available on a smartphone. Nobody had a mobile phone back then, certainly not any uni students. That meant that not only was all information seeking and researching done manually, but also if you arranged to meet anyone at a particular time and place on campus, say to do a group study session, you had to be there at that time. There was no way of letting anyone know you were running a few minutes late or that the session had been cancelled.
The other benefit of living on campus at University Hall was that I got to mix socially with other students, and not just those studying law. The great thing about that was that I was exposed to other people’s thoughts and ideas and their outlook on life. That too, was part of the learning I took away from JCU. In my view, the opportunity to learn those types of things from other students, especially those from different places and different backgrounds to your own, and from those undertaking studies in different fields, is a great opportunity and one which helps to make you a better educated and more well-rounded person. And the great thing about JCU, in that respect, was that I did not have to move down South and away from home to a capital city to get that education.
In my opinion, the importance of that kind of exposure to the ideas and beliefs of others cannot be underestimated for a young person fresh out of school. Whilst it is not part of the formal undergraduate education, in my view it is an integral part of the formative early adult years for any young university student. A university campus is a melting pot for thoughts, ideas and influences, and it is a place where students not only acquire knowledge through formal teaching, but also where their own beliefs, values and attitudes are developed and shaped. I do hope that the availability and use of technology these days does not deprive students of the opportunity to experience that aspect of a university education and life on campus. While it may be convenient to live-stream a presentation or watch a recorded lecture at your leisure from home, in my view a student who undertakes their studies in that way is missing out on an essential aspect of their university education.
Coincidentally, the person who was responsible for University Hall at the time I was a resident there, and the person to whom I had to apply to secure a room, was Dr John Mayo, Marylyn Mayo’s husband. John Mayo was the Warden of University Hall (a traditional formal title which makes it sound like something out of Game of Thrones). He and Marylyn actually lived in university-provided accommodation adjacent to the student blocks at University Hall and they would be present in the dining hall most days at lunchtime. Despite that, other than the meeting we had for the initial interview I had to undergo with Dr Mayo upon my second successful attempt applying for accommodation at Uni Hall, I did not have much direct interaction with the Warden. I would see him from time to time in the dining hall and would sometimes have an occasional brief exchange of greetings in passing, but that was all. Although I did not know him well, I knew that Dr John Mayo had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and that served to ensure University Hall ran as an orderly institution.
There was one occasion however when I risked being on the receiving end of the Warden’s discipline, and, I will claim, in part at least, it was because of what I had been taught by Marylyn Mayo. While there were many benefits from living on campus at University Hall, it also had its detractions. The main one for many residents, including myself, was the standard of the food served at dinner time. The rumour circulating at the time was that the residents at the facility out at Stewart’s Creek enjoyed a better quality of food that we did. There had been many attempts to raise the issue but, so I understood from fellow residents, the powers that be would not listen. My own growing indignation with this unsatisfactory state of affairs coincided with my increased awareness of the importance of fundamental human rights and my emerging understanding of legal duties and obligations, brought about by Marylyn Mayo’s teaching.
A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In my experience, it is not uncommon that budding lawyers feel empowered and emboldened by what they learn at law school and they often try to put their specialised knowledge into practice as soon as possible. Now, I did not think for one minute that there was any legal avenue available that could be pursued by the residents of University Hall to bring about appropriate relief. But I did think we were being treated poorly and unfairly and that if we collectively showed our outrage through some form of protest, we might be listened to and that might bring about a change. So, one dinner time, when we were served up something ghastly that was called ‘beef something’ but which bore little resemblance to meat, I decided enough was enough. I urged the residents that I knew and those around me in the dining hall to follow my lead and show their disgust when returning their dishes to the kitchen. The plan was simple, as we filed past the scraps bin, where we would usually scrape our plates clean before handing them back to the kitchen, we would instead drop the whole unfinished plate in the bin and walk out. As the instigator of this plan, I went first. I strode into the kitchen and with a flourish raised my arm high for all to see and then let my half full plate fall straight into the bin. Everyone just stared. No one followed. The only thing that changed after that was that whenever I could afford it, I spent any spare money I had on two-minute noodles. That way I would at least have something to eat whenever the inedible was next served.
Whilst it would not be entirely accurate to refer to Marylyn Mayo as a strict disciplinarian, she certainly expected her students to put in the necessary effort and to work hard, and if any student failed to meet those standards Marylyn would of course be available to provide a helpful word of encouragement, or perhaps even a reality check.
A friend of mine, who was one of Marylyn’s students and in his third year of studying law when I started, received the benefit of Marylyn’s words of encouragement after he had failed yet again to pass a particular first or second-year subject. Marylyn called him into her office to have a chat. She spoke to him about his performance in the course and how he was finding the workload, the assignments and the exams. She then asked him what he wanted to do with his life. After giving a rambling answer that perhaps did not inspire the confidence Marylyn was looking for in a future JCU law graduate, Marylyn said to him: ‘Perhaps you’d enjoy a job working outdoors.’ That little pep talk had the desired effect. My friend eventually completed his law degree and graduated. But not from JCU.
Although the JCU Department of Law had been established a few years before I started, it was still very much in its infancy when I began my undergraduate studies. The offices of the law faculty were squeezed into small rooms at the back of the library. There were no dedicated lecture theatres or tutorial rooms for the law course. Lectures were held all over the campus, mainly in the Humanities lecture theatres, but sometimes in the lecture theatres of the Education Department or even in the Engineering Department. It was a similar situation for tutorials. We would sometimes have tutorials in the classrooms where the nursing students were located, but the main tutorial room was in a small windowless room at the back of the library, near to the law faculty offices, which I think is now a peer assisted study session room. In addition to attending for tutorials or to see the law faculty staff on occasions, students would also crowd that area at the back of the library, craning to find their names and marks, when assignment or mid-semester assessment results were posted. The same notice board is still there but used for Student Equity Office notices.
No doubt these descriptions of the early days of the JCU law school make it seem quite rudimentary. It was. For a new school it was very ‘old school’. But it was a beginning, and as the current facilities, faculty and student body attest, it grew and flourished.
Things have certainly changed from when Marylyn Mayo taught here and when I was a first-year law student. But what has not changed, is the opportunity that the JCU law school provides to North Queenslanders to acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them to succeed as practising lawyers in the legal profession or in other professional capacities, without having to move so far away from their homes, communities and families.
In preparing this speech and reflecting on my own time at JCU in the early years of the law school, I thought it would be interesting to see how the current law school promotes itself to prospective students. According to one description within the College of Business, Law and Governance’s pages on the University’s website:
James Cook University produces multi-skilled, versatile and ethical graduates. Our aim is that graduates will have developed the knowledge, skills and attributes necessary to take their place in their chosen career path. Our degrees prepare people for the practice of law and also for work within, and service to, a broad range of sectors, including Government, corporate, social change, law enforcement and community wellbeing. We seek to do that by imparting a strong appreciation both of the rule of law and role of law in its social, economic, environmental and political contexts.
JCU law graduates emerge as practitioners who are committed to lifelong learning, intellectual development and displaying exemplary personal, professional and ethical standards. They have an understanding of First Nations peoples, reconciliation, diversity and sustainability. They also have a sense of their place in the Tropics and are charged with professional, community and environmental responsibility. They exhibit a willingness to lead and to contribute to the intellectual, cultural and social challenges of regional, national and international communities.
Whilst these words are perhaps written in the style of a modern mission statement, or a marketing promotion, similar words could have been written about the very first graduates to emerge from the JCU law school and those who have followed since. I think that is because studying a law degree at JCU has always imparted students and graduates with more than simply knowledge of the black-letter law. I certainly know that a strong work ethic and a passion for the law, together with the ability to analyse and think critically about legal issues, were central skills and attributes I gained and developed from studying at JCU. Even more so than the academic and theoretical knowledge of the law, those skills stood me in good stead when I commenced practising as a lawyer and helped me to succeed in the legal profession.
The achievements of the law school’s alumni, of which I am one, also show that despite its humble beginnings, the JCU law school provided a solid education for those seeking to make a career as a practising lawyer. In 2019, I was honoured to attend the law school’s 30th anniversary celebrations here at the University, where I had the opportunity to reconnect with past classmates and see and hear of the amazing achievements of the JCU law school alumni. Those of you who wonder whether there is any truth in the law school’s current promotional statements need only look to the successes of past graduates, to see where they have gone and what they have achieved.
I want to now talk about where my journey took me after I graduated. I apologise in advance for this potted history and hope it does not come across as simply an annotated recitation of my curriculum vitae.
I did not commence practising as a lawyer as soon as I had finished my law degree. In fact, when I was nearing the end of my final year studies, I was not sure that I wanted to practise law at all. I wasn’t sure there was a place for me in the legal profession. Because of that, I decided to do what some of my other friends were doing at the time. I signed up to sit the Commonwealth Public Service graduate entry examination. That was the way to obtain a graduate position in a Commonwealth Government department at the time. Depending on how well you did on the test, you could be offered a place in the following year’s intake of graduates for one or more Commonwealth Government agencies. The prime department that everyone hoped to be offered a place with was DFAT, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as everyone had dreams of being involved with international law at the United Nations or becoming a diplomat posted to an embassy in some exciting or exotic overseas location. Positions with other departments, such as the Department of Administrative Services, were less sought after. I did well enough to be offered graduate roles with the Department of Health and Family Services, and with ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission – and the Department of Administrative Services.
I chose the Department of Health and Family Services and was due to start in the department’s Brisbane office early in the following year. Of course, I still had to wait to make sure that I actually passed my final exams and would qualify to graduate. I did, and in early 1996, I moved to Brisbane to start my new role as a graduate with the department. Unfortunately, after spending everything I had packing up and travelling down to Brisbane and then finding a place to live, I couldn’t afford to come back to Townsville for my graduation later that year. Instead, I received my degree in the mail, rolled up in a packing tube.
After several months working for the department in Brisbane, learning aged care and disability services project delivery, I managed to secure a rotation to the head office in Canberra, where I would be able to work on policy and have the opportunity to advance to a junior managerial position within the Commonwealth Public Service. This sounded to me to be the most interesting area available within the department and something that could provide a stimulating career option. I was wrong. I enjoyed my time in Canberra working in the department and I was eventually offered a project officer role at the end of the graduate year. But the longer I was there, the more I came to regret not choosing to become a practising lawyer. Particularly when I was told that I was going to be working in a finance section of the department. So, I decided to make a change. I left and returned to Queensland where I completed my last remaining requirements for admission to practice. On 17 November 1997, I was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Queensland. A week later, I was back in Townsville, starting my first day as a solicitor with the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service.
Within days of my admission as a solicitor, I was in court for my first ever appearance – a bail application for a client who had been arrested and charged with serious offences after allegedly breaking into a house in the middle of the night and sexually assaulting a young girl. I remember that I was first told about the matter, and that it would be my first case, when I arrived at the office that morning and one of the senior lawyers asked if I had seen the newspaper yet. When I replied ‘no’, he threw that day’s copy of the Bulletin down on the desk and said, ‘That’s your client’. On the front page there was a photograph of a man, handcuffed and with no shirt on, being bundled into the back of a police paddy wagon. As it was my first ever appearance, I was already a bit nervous as I walked over to court for the bail application. Fortunately, any nervous sweating was quickly masked by the lather of perspiration that formed as I walked to court in my long-sleeve shirt and tie. Fortunately, no jacket was required. Even though it was a short distance from the office to the court complex in Walker Street, the Townsville humidity always ensured I would arrive at court drenched, and I would then freeze in the air conditioning.
When I finally got there, I went to the Magistrates Court side of the complex and tried to find my matter. After several minutes of wandering around lost, I eventually asked one of the court staff if they knew which court my matter was in. They told me that it was to be heard over in one of the courts on the Supreme Court side of the complex. When I asked why that was, they replied: ‘Because there are too many people interested in the matter for it to be over here’. I began sweating again.
I eventually found the court room and after speaking with my client in the cells to obtain his instructions, I applied for bail, in front of a packed court room full of journalists, practitioners and members of the public. He did not get bail.
Although that was a disappointing but inevitable outcome and a stressful start to my career as a lawyer, I knew then that this was what I wanted to do. Amongst the pressure and nerves, I had experienced the excitement and thrill that came from appearing as an advocate.
Over the next year, I continued to appear as a solicitor advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients in the Townsville region, including regular circuit court trips to Palm Island by plane. It was during that time that some of the skills and habits I had developed studying law at JCU came to the fore, especially resourcefulness and the ability to adapt and think laterally when working under pressure. Those things were particularly helpful when there could be anywhere up to 40 or even 50 matters to deal with, and when I would have about an hour between when the plane landed at Palm at around 8:30am and when court started at around 9:30am, to read the material, find my clients, get instructions and prepare what I would submit or argue on their behalf.
After my first year of practice in Townsville, the legal service went through a restructure. Everyone lost their jobs and I was forced to move to Brisbane. Luckily, I was able to secure a similar position with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service in Brisbane. I stayed in that role for the next few years, before deciding that I should try to expand my experience in practice as a lawyer. This largely came about because of a silly warning that I had heard from several still relatively junior lawyers (who nonetheless had greater post admission experience than I). It went something like: ‘Whatever you do in your first five years of practice is what you will end up doing for the rest of your career.’ As I had been practising for about three and a half years, I decided that I had better hurry up and get some more experience in another area of law. I think my reasoning at the time was that I needed to get some experience in civil litigation before I hit the five-year mark. Otherwise, I risked being sentenced to remain as a criminal lawyer for the term of my natural life.
Rather than just moving to a new job, I decided to move to a new location altogether – Sydney. I applied for and obtained a position as a solicitor in a civil litigation team within the New South Wales Crown Solicitor’s Office in Sydney. My now wife and I moved there at the start of 2001, with the idea that we would get a couple of years’ experience down there and then we would move back to Queensland. Our stay ended up being almost nine years.
My experience in Sydney did not start out so great. Again, it was because of my first appearance in that jurisdiction. When I started at the Crown Solicitor’s Office, I was yet to be admitted in New South Wales. I was admitted in Queensland of course and had applied for reciprocal admission down there, but had to wait for the next admission date. Not long after I started, I was asked to appear at a busy call-over in the District Court, albeit for a fairly routine mention. The courtroom was again packed. The list judge was renowned for his acerbic wit and his efficient disposal of the list, and also sometimes of the practitioners who appeared before him. When my matter was called, I announced my appearance, and sought leave to appear, explaining that I was admitted in Queensland and awaiting my admission in New South Wales. The judge sneered: ‘Queensland? Is that somewhere I’m supposed to have heard of?’
Eventually, the Crown Solicitor’s Office did provide me with great experience in running a civil litigation practice, and after two years I had progressed to the position of Senior Solicitor. However, I ultimately wanted to be an advocate and to appear in court and present and argue cases. So, I made the decision to go to the bar.
While it had for some time been my goal to become a barrister, the decision to go to the bar was not an easy one to make. It would mean leaving a stable, secure, well-paid job, where I was doing well and quickly progressing up the ranks, to instead become a sole practitioner, at the bottom of an extremely competitive field, with no guaranteed income or certainty of work. I was fortunate to have the support of my wife and a number of great mentors who encouraged me and helped me to take the plunge and make the transition.
But first of all, I had to sit and pass the New South Wales Bar Association’s bar exams. There were three exams, which all generally had to be taken in the same week, and candidates had to achieve a mark of at least 75% in each exam to pass. We were told the failure rate was high – only a third would get through. This sounded ominously familiar. I could almost hear again the cautionary words of Marylyn Mayo. So, I adopted a similar approach to studying for the exams that I did when studying at JCU, working hard and consistently to make sure I knew the material back to front. I was so determined to pass that I even took my study notes with me on my honeymoon. Coincidentally, there was another sombre anniversary this week, of an event that occurred during this period. My wife and I went to Bali for our honeymoon and, on 12 October 2002, half-way through our planned stay, the terrible bombings occurred at Kuta. We were lucky that we were not there that night, opting to stay in at our hotel instead. Studying was put on hold while my wife, who was a journalist, switched to reporter mode to cover the story for News Limited.
A few weeks later, after we had returned home, I sat the exams and I passed. I then commenced the Bar Practice Course in February the following year, and six weeks later I was practising at the private bar in Sydney. My specialty was anything and everything. After all, I did now have both criminal and civil experience.
In my first few years at the bar, I had a mixed practice. About half of my briefs were in criminal matters and the other half in civil cases. Of the criminal matters, about half were to appear as defence counsel and the other half to appear as a prosecutor. I got to do a bit of most things.
The first year as a reader at the bar can be tough. Readers can sit in chambers waiting in vain for the telephone to ring or for someone to walk in with a paying brief. Unlike those who practise as solicitors, it is difficult to market yourself as a junior barrister when advertising is not permitted, and work cannot be solicited. The best way of marketing yourself when you are starting out is to be seen by solicitors and others in court, doing a competent job on your feet. That is, of course, hard to do when you are new, as you first need to be briefed to appear before anyone will have the opportunity to see you in court.
I was lucky that after about three months in my first year at the bar, I was offered a brief to appear for the Commonwealth Crown as junior counsel to a senior barrister in my chambers in a long criminal trial that ran for several months. That pretty much funded my entire first year in practice. Even better, it got me into court and seen by others. It also allowed me to get to know several instructing solicitors from the office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, who subsequently came to brief me to appear by myself in cases for the Crown. From this start, over time, I developed a specialist criminal practice, prosecuting for the Commonwealth DPP and defending cases for Legal Aid, the Aboriginal Legal Service and the occasional private client.
After a time, I was doing more and more cases for the Commonwealth DPP. So much so, that they asked me to join their Sydney office as In-House Counsel, performing the role of Crown Prosecutor. I accepted the offer and did this for the better part of the next six years, interspersed with a brief return stint to Queensland as a Principal Crown Prosecutor for the Queensland Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions at the Sunshine Coast. My wife and I then eventually decided to relocate back to Queensland permanently. In 2010, I returned to the private bar in Brisbane, where I continued to specialise in crime.
Over the next ten or so years, my practice continued to develop and became busier and busier. The cases I was doing seemed to get longer, harder and more complex. But I always retained the passion, self-motivation and dedication to succeed in practice. Often that meant working long hours late into the night, working interstate for extended periods, working weekends, and sometimes missing out on family or social occasions. It is a difficult and ongoing struggle for all lawyers to strike the right work-life balance, particularly for those who practice as barristers. To my mind, the intellectual challenges of the law, the stimulation of the fascinating cases, the exhilaration of achieving a just result for clients, and the satisfaction of being a member of a respected collegiate profession, provide the greatest rewards for those who choose to take on the role and responsibilities of practice within the legal profession. However, those rewards are not always easily obtained and the demands on time and on physical and mental energy and health can be great. It is important to stay grounded, to maintain perspective and to not lose sight of other more significant aspects of our lives. Again, I feel that these were lessons learned from my time at JCU. Perhaps it has something to do with starting out in the law by studying in the university’s laidback tropical setting.
I have always been motivated to do well in my professional life. I have wanted to achieve things, not for the sake of winning accolades or satisfying vain ambitions, but simply because I wanted to take on the challenges of practising law and do my job well. I always wanted to walk out of court thinking, regardless of the outcome, I had done the best job I could do. That was my own personal professional standard. For the most part, I felt I met that standard, but it is difficult to know how you are performing and how you may compare with others when you practise as a lawyer. That is particularly so for barristers. There are no performance reviews. No-one provides you with constructive criticism. Feedback is rare. The best indicator that you are performing well is that you are being briefed and are busy. I was fortunate that was the case for me.
I did however, receive the greatest recognition I could hope for as a barrister. In 2018, I took silk, being appointed as one of the Queen’s Counsel in and for the State of Queensland. That title has of course recently become King’s Counsel. The moment I found out I was to be appointed as silk was something I will never forget. The process for appointment is long. Applicants must submit their applications in August each year, addressing various criteria and putting forward their claim to be recognised by the profession as a leader at the bar, all on the strength of their own assessment of their skills, abilities and experience. It is hard to know if and when to put your name forward for consideration. Your character and credentials are scrutinised by senior members of the profession, by the Bar Association, by judges and ultimately by the Attorney-General. The announcement of successful applicants takes place in November. It is a demanding and nerve-wracking process for everyone and can be particularly demoralising for unsuccessful applicants.
After submitting my application in August 2018, I then had to endure the long wait to find out whether I was successful. That year, the announcement of the new silks was delayed for a week or so. The wait was drawn out even further and the precise timing of when it would be made was uncertain. Successful applicants are notified in writing by the Bar Association just before the new silks are publicly announced. On the day I found out the fate of my application, I was not in chambers. I was actually at a tennis lesson, about to step onto the court, when I received a text message from my clerk notifying me that a letter had arrived from the Bar Association, and they would just leave it on my desk for when I returned tomorrow. I immediately rang her back and asked her to open the letter straight away and read it to me. She did, and very matter of factly read the letter which informed me that my application was successful, and I was to be appointed as Queens Counsel. I felt as though I had been electrocuted. The sensation was euphoric and the moment was historic. I had achieved a personal and professional goal that I had sought to one day achieve and at the same time I became the first ever Indigenous person to be appointed as a King or Queen’s Counsel in Queensland’s history. When I later signed the silks roll at the Supreme Court on the occasion of the new silks announcing their appointments to the Court, it was a proud but surreal moment. This formality and tradition had been going on for 165 years and yet there had never before been an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person appointed to the role and able to sign their name in the book.
After my appointment as Queen’s Counsel, my practice increased exponentially. The number of cases I was briefed in, and the difficulty and complexity of those cases, increased. The diversity and the areas of law involved in the matters in which I was briefed also expanded.
Just when I thought that my professional career had reached its peak, another opportunity came along. In May of this year, I was offered an appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland. To one day become a judge had long been an aspiration of mine. I recall that even when studying law as a student, I fleetingly dreamed about it after attending a lecture delivered here at JCU by Sir George Kneipp, although I never seriously contemplated that it would be a real possibility. Even as I advanced within the profession in practice, I only seriously began to think of it as a possibility after I had taken silk.
I had always considered it would be the pinnacle of achievements within the law to be elevated to the bench. But, when the offer of appointment came, the decision to take it was not any easy choice to make at all. I was again faced with the quandary. Taking the appointment to the Court would mean leaving behind something that I loved doing; being an advocate and practising as a barrister, with a burgeoning silk’s practice that was growing every day.
Ultimately, I decided the opportunity of an appointment to the Supreme Court was one that I simply could not pass up. Whilst it meant that I would no longer experience the exhilaration and satisfaction that comes from performing the role of an advocate, I was convinced that the new role would provide even greater challenges and rewards.
So, I accepted the appointment, and on 13 June this year, I was sworn in as a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland. According to the official count, I am the 135th justice to serve on the Court. However, the more important number was that I again achieved another remarkable and historic first. I became the first ever Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person to be appointed as a judge of a superior court in Australia. I never wanted to be the first, but I was proud that I was.
Although I am still new to the role and have only been on the bench for about four months, my expectations of the challenges and rewards of the appointment have proven to be accurate. Whilst judges have a heavy responsibility and at times an onerous and unenviable duty that they must faithfully discharge, the rewards of performing that duty are great. It is a privilege to be a member of the judiciary, serving on the highest court in our State. The nature of the work is demanding, but diverse and stimulating. There is great satisfaction in performing one’s judicial duties, to determine a legal dispute or controversy fairly and wisely, by dispensing justice according to law. That is the challenge I now strive to meet each day.
Having achieved quite a few things in the course of my time practising law, it gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to return here to JCU and to have the opportunity to speak to students who are just starting out on their own journeys in the law. Many JCU law graduates have achieved success in their chosen careers, whether as practising lawyers or in other roles, and they have set an example to follow. I am just one of them. I hope that by sharing the story of my journey, current and future JCU law students will be encouraged to believe that when they graduate they will leave here with all the knowledge and skills necessary to compete with graduates from any other institution and to succeed in practice within the legal profession, if they so choose. It is a profession that requires life-long learning to succeed. And for students who study law at JCU, that learning starts at the school Marylyn Mayo helped to establish.
* Judge of the Trial Division of the Supreme Court of Queensland. This lecture was delivered online and in person at James Cook University on 4th October 2022.