Supreme Court of NSW
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Address on the Occasion of the Retirement of the Honourable Justice R P Meagher

15 MARCH 2004

We gather here today to mark the departure from full-time involvement in the administration of justice of one of the intellectual giants of our legal history. The Honourable Roderick Pitt Meagher, known universally as Roddy, is the most widely loved judge of his time. There are some exceptions to that proposition but they need not detain us.

The source of the esteem in which your Honour is held is your combination of immense personal charm with an extraordinary intellect, reinforced by the wickedness of your tongue, the sparkle of your wit and the relentlessness of your intellectual honesty, not least with yourself. Throughout your career in the law, as lecturer, author, barrister and judge, you have followed the law where it led, whatever the consequences may be. On no occasion did anyone suspect that you fudged either the law or the facts to achieve a convenient, let alone a popular decision.

Often the confidence you exude, together with your extraordinary command both of the law and of the language to explain it, leaves the rest of us surprised, even anxious. That, however, is not your problem but ours.

As everyone in this courtroom knows your major contribution is found in that magnificent text Equity: Doctrines and Remedies, a joint work which is the product of a massive scholarly endeavour.

Justice Heydon said of this publication:

"It has extremely strong claims to be placed on, indeed at the top of, a short list of the greatest legal works written in the English language in the 20th century."[1]

It is a different kind of text to any that had come before. It spoke without the diffidence characteristic of legal texts; it exuded, and sometimes luxuriated in, its own confidence and mastery of the subject; it's style was irreverent, witty and disrespectful, including strongly expressed opinions about the inadequacies of judgments by judges of high repute. It heralded a new and distinctive voice in Australian legal discourse, a voice which would enrich the intellectual endeavour of a generation of lawyers in numerous further publications, speeches, judgments and, for those of us privileged to have experienced them, in conversations with you. I am confident you will, one day, find your Boswell.
In the Court of Appeal and in the Court of Criminal Appeal, your Honour dealt with matters across the full range of this Court's jurisdiction, travelling well beyond equity jurisprudence. Chief Justice Gleeson, who is overseas and has asked me to apologise for his absence today, informs me that he was careful to ensure that you sat with him on your first appearance as a judge in the Court of Criminal Appeal. Immediately after the bench sat you turned to the Chief Justice and said:

"You only have to look at him to know that he is guilty."

Chief Justice Gleeson felt obliged to point out:

"The Appellant hasn't been brought up from the cells yet. You're looking at the court officer."

Throughout your years on the bench of this Court you have conducted yourself with unfailing courtesy to counsel and litigants. In hearings you have manifested an ability to direct attention to the real issues upon which the outcome of the case would depend, distilling the facts into their simplest form, before applying the precise principles of law required to determine the case. Your judgments are written concisely, accurately and with humour, encapsulating within a few pages what others take dozens to express. This is not the style fashionable amongst your judicial contemporaries ,including myself. There are many of us who yearned for more. We are, however, most grateful for what we received.

All of us cherish the memory of your many witticisms, your mischievous inventions, your flaunting of unfashionable opinions - some of which you probably hold - and your eloquent turns of phrase. Even those who have been the object of your most pointed barbs, many of which must have been hurtful, seem to accept that they were devoid of malice. I am sure they were. For no-one was exempt from a rapier like thrust at the heart of their reputation.

Sir Frederick Jordan was one for whom you have the highest intellectual respect. Nevertheless, with respect to a particular footnote in his Chapters in Equity in New South Wales you once observed, in a judgment:

"Great as is the homage we all owe to Sir Frederick Jordan, one must state that the footnote is nonsense. It has, of course, been approved by the High Court on about four occasions ... but that does not convert it into sense."[2]

This was 1998, when your Honour had served on the Court for about a decade. In 1983, when your Honour wrote the Foreword to the republication of Sir Frederick Jordan's Papers[3], the High Court judgments, to which you would later refer with such scorn, were mentioned in that Foreword. Far from being critical of those judgments, your Honour referred to them as an indication of the "current utility" of Sir Frederick's great work. Perhaps you were teasing. Your Honour was of course then counsel. This may have been an uncharacteristic display of tact, or at least discretion. You would rise above tact on the bench.

As you move into the entirely tact free zone of post judicial life, we look forward to continuing enrichment from your wit and your intellect. The fact that it will no longer be available to me on a virtually daily basis is a loss which I will feel deeply. So will many other members of this Court. I and we will miss you.

1 Heydon "The Role of the Equity Bar in a Judicature Era" in G Lindsay (ed) No Mere Mouthpeice: Servants of All, Yet of None Sydney (2002).

2 See Chief Commissioner of Stamp Duties v ISVT Pty Limited (1998) 45 NSWLR 639 at [64]; "Sir Frederick Jordan's footnote" (1999) 15 Journal of Contract Law 1.

3 Sir Frederick Jordan Select Legal Papers Sydney 1983 Foreword p2

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Last updated: 14 October 2005
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