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Hearsay ... the electronic journal of the Bar Association of Queensland - The Bar in Townsville

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Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland

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The Bar in Townsville
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Print E-mail

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endeavour_intro.jpgThis article by Anthony W Collins sets out the history of the legal profession in North Queensland and the subsequent establishment of the Townsville Bar while highlighting the achievements and legacies of its members.

It is noted in the Log Book of H.M. Bark Endeavour that at 8 am on Thursday 8 June 1770 as the ship sailed by Great Palm Island towards Halifax Bay a criminal punishment was executed. Marine Dunster received the punishment of “a doz’n lashes” for theft. Lieutenant James Cook did not note in the Log Book whether there was a trial or whether Dunster was represented. The punishment Dunster received is probably the first record of the administration of British Justice in North Queensland.

If a plea was made for Marine Dunster then whoever made it could rightly claim to be the first advocate in North Queensland.

townsville.jpgThere are presently 22 barristers in private practice with a further 17 employed barristers in Townsville. There are five sets of Chambers, RJ Douglas Chambers, Sir George Kniepp Chambers, A.B. Paterson Chambers, Edmund Sheppard Chambers and Northern Circuit Chambers.

The North Queensland Bar Association is actively involved in the promotion of the interests of Townsville Barristers.

Barristers have been engaged to represent parties in North Queensland from the earliest days of the existence of Queensland.

joseph.jpgIn 1865, Joseph George Long Innes was appointed as a Judge of the Northern District Court. Judge Innes suffered from the immediate difficulty of not having a courthouse to sit in. His correspondence records his dissatisfaction with the lack of Court facilities. The records indicate that there were 32 criminal cases and 349 civil matters disposed of in the northern District in 1866. The Northern District extended from Gladstone north and west.

Initially, the legal and administrative centre for Northern Queensland was Bowen.

Edmund Sheppard was appointed the first Northern Judge in 1874 and resided in Bowen.

In 1874 during the second sittings of the circuit court in Townsville Justice Sheppard sentenced an Aboriginal man known only as “Jimmy” to death for the offence of Piracy. The offence was said to have occurred on Halifax Bay, the same stretch of water where Marine Dunster was punished. The conviction was subsequently quashed on appeal.

In 1899 the Northern Supreme Court was moved from Bowen to Townsville. Between 1865 and 1899 Townsville was a circuit centre. At this time Barristers followed the Judges as they circuited.

Before 1899 there is no indication of Barristers resident in Townsville. However, in the Supreme Court Registry there is a photograph of a picnic held at Arcadia on Magnetic Island in 1908 to commemorate the transfer of Justice Chubb and the arrival of Justice Shand. In the photograph there are identified three barristers; R.J. Douglas; A.W. McNaughton and C. Jameson each of whom was to become a Justice of the Supreme Court.

In a lecture delivered by the Honourable W Carter Q.C. on 10 November 2006, “The Legal profession in North Queensland from the perspective of a former Practitioner” when referring to R. J. Douglas he said:

“In 1962 one could not identify with the Townsville Bar or with a wider North Queensland profession and not be aware of the strength and quality of the legal tradition of which one was now to become a part. The Townsville Bar had spawned R J Douglas, who after his admission in 1906 had spent a short time as associate to the Northern Judge Mr. Justice Real before commencing practice in Townsville, as Ross Johnson notes, with just five pounds in his pocket. But he practised with great success. Johnson notes this, ‘his courtroom style was very convincing. He was persistent and tenacious in defence and cross examination and fair in prosecution’.”

R. J. Douglas was the Northern Judge from 1923 to 1953, and now, almost 60 years after his retirement, his legacy lives on. His dedication to North Queensland was legendary; he set the standard for the profession to follow. As Carter QC noted that “R.J. Douglas had declined offers to leave the North for Brisbane and Johnson again notes ‘Instead, he preferred to stay in his large bungalow house at Pimlico, tending his garden, relaxing in the sun, having served North Queensland all of his life’”. R.J. Douglas's son, James Archibald Douglas was to himself become a Supreme Court justice, as were his grandsons, Robert and James Douglas.

Fittingly, the James Cook University of North Queensland is situated in the suburb of Douglas.

On the night of Carter QC’s lecture, Dr. Dorothy Gibson-Wilde presented the Chief Justice with the North Queensland legal history database, which can be accessed on the Supreme Court website: http://www.sclqld.org.au/schp/northqld/

The gold rushes in the late 19th century had bought wealth and population to both Townsville and Rockhampton. The subsequent development of the sugar industry on the coast and grazing inland resulted in a steady economic growth prior to World War II.

There can be little doubt that the Townsville was transformed by the fact that the United States 5th Air Force was based at Garbutt for a substantial part of World War II. However, it would seem that the Bar remained stable and consistent.

Russell Skerman was admitted to the bar in 1932 and was initially the associate of R.J. Douglas. The two practised for a lengthy period of time in Townsville until he was appointed the Northern Judge in 1962.

A contemporary at the Bar in Townsville of Skerman was the redoubtable Frederick Woolonough Paterson, the only Communist ever to be elected to a Parliament in Australia, The Australian Dictionary of biography contains the following entry concerning Fred Paterson.

In December 1932 Paterson moved to Townsville where he built up a substantial, though not lucrative, criminal practice. His ingenious defence arguments entered the mythology of the left in North Queensland. From May 1937 he edited the communist newspaper, North Queensland Guardian. In 1939-44 he was an active and popular alderman of Townsville City Council. He contested Federal and State elections on every possible occasion, and, when he won the State seat of Bowen on 15 April 1944, became the first communist in Australia to be elected to parliament.

Any person who enters the Edmund Sheppard building in Townsville, the very first thing they will observe, is the dominating presence of Sir George Kneipp. His portrait hangs over the elevators, and his spirit watches over every person who enters the courts.

Alongside the 1908 photograph in the Supreme Court registry is another photograph taken in front of the old Supreme Court building, with members of the Townsville profession, marking the retirement of RJ Douglas in 1953. George Kneipp’s dominating presence is also clear in that photograph.

Sir George and all of his predecessors sat in the old Supreme Court building on Cleveland Terrace. The building overlooked Magnetic Island, Cleveland Bay, Cape Cleveland, Great Palm Island and on a very clear day glimpses of Hinchinbrook Island and the stretch of water where Marine Dunster was punished and where “Jimmy” was active.

The Old Supreme Court was a two-storey wooden building, originally built as a School of Arts. As is noted in the Queensland Heritage Register:

“Initially constructed as a Library and School of Arts in 1877, the building was one of the largest timber School of Arts buildings in Queensland. It played an important part in the social life of Townsville in the late 1870s and through the 1880s. When it was completed the hall was the premier entertainment venue in Townsville. For 86 years the building served as the only timber supreme court building in Queensland. It is also distinguished by the fact that it was a converted building, which differed from the usual practice of purpose built court houses.”

The old Court survived Cyclone Leonta in 1903 and Cyclone Althea in 1971, despite the roof being blown off on both occasions. On New Years Eve, 1965 an explosion, at the entrance to the building, destroyed the front doors .

Surprisingly, the old Magistrates Court was a sturdier building which is still standing and is now used for artistic performances.

Mr. Carter QC practiced in Townsville and was a contemporary of Sir George Kniepp and Vince Finn, the Northern Crown Prosecutor who was to be appointed to the District Court.

In 1975, the Edmund Sheppard building was opened by the then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. That building provided for both the Magistrates Court and the Superior Courts to be in the same complex. The building has stood the test of time, and has served the Townsville community well.

The old Supreme Court building remained unused and derelict, and despite an extensive refurbishment and plans for its future use it burned to the ground on the night of 14 April 1997.

In his lecture, Carter QC, identified 1967 as the year in which there was a significant influx of new talent to the Townsville Bar. Carter QC noted that both Kerry Cullinane and James Webb commenced practice in Townsville in 1967. They were followed shortly thereafter by Bob Greenwood, Jim Hunter, and Vic and Keith Graham.

Along with members of the private Bar Townsville has had a long history of resident Crown Prosecutors, a great number of whom had subsequently been appointed to the bench. When the District Court was reconstituted in 1959, the Northern Crown prosecutor Ralph Cormack was appointed the District Court Judge in Townsville.

There have been nine District Court Judges appointed from Townsville, including Pat Shanahan who was to eventually serve as the Chief Judge of the District Court.

Sir George Kneipp was succeeded as the northern Judge by the recently retired Kerry Cullinane QC AM. He was the first barrister to take silk outside of Brisbane.

Whenever lawyers gather and remember the past there is a very real risk that fact and legend will not coincide. We at the Townsville Bar are proud of the commitment made by barristers to North Queensland for well over 100 years.

As the experience of Marine Dunster and Jimmy shows there was a need for advocates long before there were established Courthouses in Townsville. It is a matter of some pride to the Townsville Bar that we follow in the footsteps of remarkable lawyers and continue to service that need.

Anthony W Collins



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