Review / In Tom we trusted

Canberra lawyer PETER HOHNEN reviews a new biography of the remarkable Tom Hughes

BARRISTER Tom Hughes is the greatest advocate of his generation.

In the new biography “Tom Hughes QC – A Cab on the Rank” (Federation Press, $59.95) retired reader in history at ANU, Ian Hancock, has produced a tour de force of a remarkable life that covers Tom’s wartime experiences in the RAF flying Sunderland aircraft on submarine-hunting exercises (for which he was decorated by the French government), his colourful career at the NSW Bar and in Federal politics as attorney-general.

xtom-hughes-qc-jpg-pagespeed-ic-neoypydvimI had wondered how a non-lawyer could handle the legal career of this highly talented and complex leader of the Bar, but Hancock has brought his skills as a biographer of notable political figures to good purpose, mastering the intricacies and atmosphere of the more notable courtroom dramas in which his subject was involved. One such case took place in the ACT Supreme Court.

This work is clearly written and captures Hughes as vividly as his portrait by Jiawei Shen on the jacket of the book.

Hughes was equally at home in the High Court, or before a jury in a criminal trial but his true métier, in my opinion, was in libel cases whether before a jury or judge alone, as was the case in the ACT Supreme Court, which for many years was the jurisdiction of choice for the many public figures for whom I briefed Hughes.

I instructed him in dozens of defamation cases in the ACT Supreme Court throughout the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s and it was a unique experience to see this Queen’s Counsel at the height of his powers.

Writing in the ’60s, Lord Birkett (“Six Great Advocates”) expressed the view that the all-important task of a great advocate is to persuade: “Whatever the case and whatever the court, the first and vital thing is that the advocate shall know the case he desires to make with complete thoroughness. He must have a complete mastery of the facts and he must have the power to present them in the most attractive way. He must have a quick mind and an understanding heart. He must acquire in some way an insight into human nature and a natural unforced sympathy will all sorts and conditions of men. Above all, he must have what I can only call an intuitive recognition of what the circumstances of the case require as it slowly unfolds itself before the court. The other most important part of the advocate’s equipment is command of language.

Tom Hughes AO QC Legion of Honour had all of these qualities in full measure. He lives in retirement on his property near Goulburn in robust health in his 93rd year.

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