Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll years

Michael Pelly | September 05, 2008

IN the early days of the law firm he founded with friends, Robert French became very popular with the ladies of the night.

"It was drugs, drunks and prostitutes" is how the new chief justice this week described a significant part of their trade.

"The drunks were in the breathalyser area and because of my scientific education I took great interest in how the breathalyser worked.

"With the drugs we were arguing about the definition of cannabis."

With prostitutes it was "whether a single prostitute could constitute a brothel".

"It was called the single-operator problem. I had a win on that and then of course they kept knocking on the door until we had to say, 'No more, thanks, we'll move on from that'."

Later, he says, his wife represented a male stripper charged with "an indecent exhibition".

"I had represented this man's wife and when we were married they sent both of us a big bunch of flowers. The vice squad sent us a telegram saying: 'We warned you the single operator would get caught'."

Chief Justice French, who is the 12th man to sit at the apex of Australia's judicial system, says it was not until he started to practise law that he became "fully engaged". He had initially hoped to be a theoretical physicist, but after finishing his science degree he moved on to law "because it offered the widest range of possible choices".

"At one stage, I tried for a holiday job in journalism at the West, but I got knocked back.

"I think they thought I didn't have a clear enough objective in life. I could not lie and say I wanted to be a journalist for the rest of my life."

Even after he finished his degree, he was unsure of his professional path. Law hadn't inspired him, save the subject of jurisprudence for "the intersection of law and morality".

At one stage, he even applied to the Foreign Affairs department before deciding he would do his articles. "It was when I got into practice, dealing with real people and real problems and ways of solving those problems that I found myself fully engaged and really haven't stopped since, being fully engaged."

In an extensive interview the day before he was sworn in, the first West Australian to head the court covered topics ranging from his "failed" run for the federal Parliament to how he became probably the first chief justice to be contacted by an Attorney-General via text message.

From an early age, French was marked out for great things - a point noticed by his siblings. Ahead of his "coronation", French's brother, Simon, joked: "When we were younger, he would get out of doing the drying up or doing the dishes because he would have to go off and study - this when he was in year four."

About this time he learned the epitaph of a man who had been killed by lightning. That he recites it unprompted - and with a smile - is an indication it is burned in his consciousness.

"Here lies a man who was struck by lightning, just when his prospects seemed to be brightening. He could have cut a flash in this world of trouble, but the flash cut him and he lies in the stubble."

And the message? "Not to take yourself too seriously perhaps."

Everyone else is now taking Robert French very seriously. It's a point, the 61-year-old concedes after discussing recent speeches on his "dreams" for a republic, native title reform and the perils of co-operative federalism.

If he hadn't already accepted those invitations to speak well before he was mooted a likely chief justice, one would swear he had been campaigning for the job.

The chief says after he has settled in, he "will be talking about some different things - perhaps focusing more on the function of the judiciary and the rule of law in Australia".

"As chief justice that people may put more weight on things you say than when you are a single judge, so I will have to be careful to make sure they don't read into it hidden meanings or opinions you don't really hold.

"You have to be careful with the nuances."

It is to be hoped the job does not subdue French's warm, humble demeanour and engaging style. He was much loved on the Federal Court and in the wider legal community as one of those people who can make those you feel like the most fascinating person he has met.

Judges often complain that they are seen as out of touch. Justice Michael Kirby has gone some way to shedding that notion, and others such as NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman and Queensland Chief Justice Paul de Jersey - not to mention French's predecessor Murray Gleeson - have shown a willingness to explain the law and connect more with the public.

French, however, threatens to take that to a whole new level. That he uses pop culture figures such as Homer Simpson, Judge Dredd and Harry Potter to get his message across can only help.

He also tells a very good story.

One involves his doomed tilt against Kim Beazley Sr in the federal seat of Fremantle when he was president of the Liberal Society at the University of Western Australia.

French describes that time as "a lot of fun". He even took a band, Time Peace, on the hustings to support his campaign slogan - pop politics in the swinging seat.

"The high point of the campaign in 69 was when we went over to Rottnest Island," he says.

"We were on the back of a truck outside the Rottnest pub, the band was playing and there was a crowd of about 500. While the band was playing the crowd was rapt.

"They would stop and I would stand up and give a short burst and the crowd would move forward and start rocking the truck.

"We got the band to start playing again."

He never fell victim to a rotten tomato but remembers that "a dog in Willagee bit my trousers. I think it was an ALP dog".

It was through this candidacy that he met members of the women's branch of the Liberal Party, who inspired his enduring interest in indigenous issues.

"They had been to a summer school at University of Western Australia and became involved in the issue of Aboriginal advancement."

This led to him setting up a justice committee and then providing part-time pro-bono advice to those on remand along with others including future Coalition minister Fred Chaney, High Court judge Ron Wilson, law professors George Winterton and Philip Clarke, state premier Peter Dowding and Graham McDonald, his future partner at that haven for vice - Warren McDonald French & Harrison.

"We wrote a letter to the commonwealth government. This was in 1972 before the election, asking 'can we have $3000 to run a duty counsel service down at the East Perth lock-up and court. After the election, in the heady early days of the Whitlam government, we received a letter back saying 'how much will it cost to represent all Aborigines in Western Australia'. Suddenly, the game had changed radically."

French became the first chairman of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia. The first regional office was in Port Hedland and the first volunteer was future High Court judge John Toohey QC.

The stipend of $16,000 a year was well short of what a QC could earn but Toohey moved with his wife and six of his seven children to work there for a year.

"It was a terrific success. It was the first time Aboriginal people had actually been represented in court."

Toohey, who was also at the swearing-in, was 24 when he moved into Philip Road, Dalkeith, Perth - also home for the then seven-year-old French. "We used to all set off firecrackers together on Guy Fawkes night," French says.

His three-year stint with the law firm turned into eight. During the following three years at the bar, he was involved in the landmark competition law case Fencott v Muller and was junior to Sir Maurice Byers in Koowarta - the forerunner to the Race Discrimination Act and later Mabo and Wik.

"There is one thing (Byers) said to me about the High Court ... 'they're just chaps, Bob, just chaps' - in other words not to get overawed by them.

"This was, of course, before there were woman on the court."

In 1986, he was tapped to join the Federal Court at age 39. There he stayed until this week, earning a reputation as the court's finest judge and an expert on constitutional, administrative and competition law who wrote lucid judgments and was firm but courteous with counsel.

As the first president of the Native Title Tribunal from 1994-98, he did all the early, hard yards in a controversial area of law.

His conduct of the Westpoint litigation also won him plaudits and his appeal work included cases such as Tampa, Haneef and the World Youth day case.

He cites Toohey's "professional calm" as an inspiration.

"I don't think it's for judges or lawyers to engage in histrionics. They don't help the process of decision making. You stay calm, you stay courteous and you avoid what I call 'the static of purple prose'.

"If people are playing games or engaging in rhetoric, it doesn't really add to the point they're making."

Away from court, he is still clearly besotted with his wife, Valerie - the mother to his three boys and herself a West Australian District Court judge. Judge French will retire in February and move over to Canberra. "Otherwise, I wouldn't see him," she said this week.

As with most things in his life, he became "fully engaged" after the woman he first spotted at university returned from overseas in 1979 and became the first woman at the WA Bar. "Six weeks after we started going out we decided we would get married, so we did six months later."

One of her colleagues at the District Court has sent him some running routes in Canberra. Fitness is clearly important to him - there were quips at the swearing-in about how he advocates "abdominal crunches" for those in sedentary work - but says he only started pounding the pavement after he hit 50 and went through "an extended mid-life crisis".

"I took up scuba diving, I did a (tandem) skydive, I went white water rafting and then took up running."

French likes to move to the music on his iPod, which includes Mozart, Rachmaninoff, the Tenors, Bruce Springsteen, Don McLean, Buddy Holly and Cat Stevens.

He smiles at the suggestion he hasn't moved much past the 60s and early 70s. "This is true. Musically, it was the best time."

However, his willingness to come to grips with modern technology has its limits.

Two days before he was appointed on July 30 - the day he returned from the Aspen Instituite - French received a text message from the office of Attorney-General Robert McClelland.

"I think they thought I was still in the United States. I'm not very good on texting, so I rang the office.

"The Attorney rang back later. After exchanging pleasantries he offered me the job, subject to it going through Cabinet."

His reaction: "Initially it was fairly pragmatic - 'I have to deal with this'.

"It did feel a little bit unreal for a while."

His wife was holidaying at the time with friends in Bali when he let her know later that Monday.

"She was by the poolside. I think she just about fell into the pool.

"That's when it hit home in a big way."

He has no illusions of grandeur, and observes the Chief Justice of the High Court "is not first among equals - he is one among equals".

"You are not in a position to direct people what to do," he says.

"It's a matter of discussion. I chair the meetings of judges but beyond that my voice gets the weight that it is entitled to by virtue of the merits of the arguments. This is not a command structure."

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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