Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Issue 54
Eulogy to Federal Magistrate Keith Slack Print E-mail

themis_icon_vert.jpgThe following is the eulogy given by Justice Peter Murphy of the Family Court of Australia for Federal Magistrate Keith Slack who died on Saturday, 17 December 2011. The funeral was held at the Albert Street Uniting Church on Thursday, 23 December 2011.

For Keith

It was not even two weeks ago when Charmaine asked me to send out an e-mail message that Keith’s condition had deteriorated very significantly. Many to whom I sent the message responded. To a person, the terms they used were the same: “this fine man”, “this wonderful man”, “this loving and thoughtful man”.

A few days later, early on a Saturday evening, Keith died. He was surrounded by his family. He knew they were there. Despite his pain, he squeezed their hands, both in recognition of their presence and as an outward sign that the incredibly brave fight he had put up for them was, even to the last, continuing. Charmaine, Tom and Kate, who had cared for Keith, and walked every step with him, were, blessedly, given a chance to say goodbye and to grant him their blessing to let go.

The following Monday, [Justice] Michael Kent [of the Family Court] organised an event on very short notice. He said, rightly, that neither [the Family Court or the federal Magistrates] Court could pretend that life could go on as normal when the Federal Magistrates Court - and family law – had lost someone who was truly admired and loved. Despite the short notice, the members of the two courts, sharing - as was only right - a common bench, were greeted by a courtroom full of people – barristers, solicitors, registrars, family consultants, associates, court officers and security staff. It was a moving tribute to this universally liked and admired man.

Keith was a fine judicial officer, a fine lawyer, a good soldier and a true believer. To Charmaine he was a wonderful husband, to Kate and Tom, a wonderful father and Gwen and June could not have had a more loving and supportive son and brother.

He was, indeed, a fine man.

Keith’s values and beliefs were instilled from a very early age and endured despite tragically losing his father as a teenager. Like others who combine high achievement with humanity and humility, Keith never forgot where he came from; he knew he was, to borrow from Clive James, a lucky member of a lucky generation and he never lost sight of that. Keith’s colleague and friend [Federal Magistrate] Michael Baumann is fond of saying that our job is important, and the institution we serve is very important, but we are not important. Keith never forgot this. Ever. He lived it.

Those qualities do not, of course, spring from nowhere. Gwen, what a wonderful job you did: you have every right to be as proud of Keith as you obviously have always been. No mother should ever have to bear the death of their child. Our hearts go out to you. Such comfort as you and June are able to derive will come, I suspect, from the fact that no mother and no sister could have asked for fiercer loyalty, love and protection than you had from Keith. It was given unstintingly and without complaint.

Keith and I met a few weeks after starting uni in 1974. Memory may be playing tricks on me but I think our first conversation was about our then shared passion for the mighty Easts Tigers. Certainly, I know that the first two of many things we passionately agreed about were that the great DJ Morris was undoubtedly the best footballer never to play for Australia and that his omission from the Australian team, due to an alleged heart murmur, was an evil NSW conspiracy. Keith and I were, of course, together for the great 1977 premiership win but, by then we’d done the hard yards together - Sunday arvos at Langlands Park, reserve grade and the firsts. As I recall, Slacky even had a Chiko roll with me in those days.

Many years later, Stephen and I, through a journey involving much reflection on Keith’s part, were able to win him over from the dark side and he became, sensibly, an almost-as-passionate supporter of the Brisbane Lions.

Keith and I were also to attend together the first Legal Practice Course in Queensland – a post-graduate course designed to prepare just-graduated lawyers for practice as a solicitor. There were 12 of us in that first course, six of whom liked to spend their lunchtimes playing cards. And sometimes their afternoons. And sometimes their mornings. For money. Keith was a very good card player and, specifically, a very good 500 player. I permitted him to be my partner.

The only time I personally witnessed Keith’s otherwise perpetual calm and even-tempered demeanour broken was when I went 8 no trumps with – arguably - a 6 no trumps hand and we did our dough to Billy McDonald and Ian King.

Keith’s generosity extended most commonly in those years to giving his mates a lift to uni. He was a conscientious bloke and somewhat abstemious – at least compared to his mates. Unfortunately, on occasions, Keith’s generosity was repaid by his less conscientious and abstemious mates letting him down by still being in bed at collection time. I don’t want to name names. All I am prepared to say is that Keith got to know my mother very well.

Mum always used to say: “If it wasn’t for Keith, I don’t think Peter would have got to Uni at all”.

Unfortunately, Keith didn’t manage to get me to lectures. But, again, his generosity came to the fore, this time matched by another equally valuable quality: legible handwriting. Keith is one of a small number of people who were kind enough to allow their lecture notes to be photocopied by me and our late friend, Tim Gartside. But for the grace of Keith, I would not have a law degree.

Keith’s appointment as a Federal Magistrate in 2005 came as the culmination of a legal career that spanned more than 25 years. It included a lengthy stint at Legal Aid Queensland; private legal practice as a solicitor, both in partnership and as a sole practitioner, and, for nearly 13 years, as a valued and much-loved comrade at Higgins Chambers.

To each he brought dedication, commitment, hard work and, importantly, a sense of obligation to those who put their trust in him. Those he worked with were rewarded by his friendship, his collegiality and his talents.

They were also rewarded by his sense of humour. To those who did not know Keith well, this might come be somewhat of a surprise: his public demeanour was consistently somewhat quiet and reserved. But, if you were lucky enough to count him as a colleague and a friend, his quick and mischievous and often sardonic wit was equally apparent.

Many of his colleagues on the court, and some of those outside it, will know of the Shame File – a collection of “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry or go mad” moments and snippets. Keith, I know that you would, more than anything else, like me to share today some of our favourites from the file of shame. And how I would love to oblige. Unfortunately, as you will know, there are a couple of pieces of legislation and a whole tort that prevent me from doing so. But, let me assure you, it shall live on and will yet make it into our much-promised compendious form.

Colleagues from other, earlier parts of Keith’s life will tell you, even today with a smile, about his Legal Aid newsletters and, of course, it being the Yuletide, there would invariably be a poem. Most recently, the Child Support Blues, written in conjunction with his son Tom, was unleashed on an unsuspecting public at the family law residential conference a couple of years ago. It will be getting a reprise today as part of this service.

Keith’s sense of humour could also be wry: on the 14th of December 2003, the25th anniversary of our mutual admission as solicitors, Keith sent me a sympathy card.

It is impossible to do justice to the contribution Keith made as a lawyer without mentioning the work he did as an independent children’s lawyer. His contribution to that most difficult work was legion and will remain a very significant legacy.

It is impossible to do justice to the contribution Keith made outside of legal practice and outside of the courtroom but I cannot fail to mention such an important component of Keith the lawyer and Keith the man. Keith’s voluntary commitment to family law and those who seek to practise it was a hallmark of his professional life: mentoring students, giving papers, developing new approaches to family dispute resolution and mediation and innumerable hours spent within the community sector.

In that respect, many people, both practitioners and social scientists are here today from Lismore. The work that Keith did there, particularly in conjunction with Anthony Smith, stands as much a testament to Keith the man as it does to Keith the lawyer and judicial officer. Had this dreadful illness not intervened, the efforts of Marie Adams in particular, might have brought about a well-deserved public recognition of these achievements.

I want to say publicly that I think Keith was a very under-rated lawyer. Mostly, he was under-rated by his greatest critic: himself. Keith was fond of saying after a particularly exasperating day on the bench that “I reckon some practitioners just don’t get law”. Keith did - and he “got” family law, in particular. He understood its nuances and subtexts. He understood, intuitively, the human dynamics that underlie so much of its conflict.

They are some of the qualities that also made him a very, very good mediator. Many of those with bigger reputations and higher fee structures could have learned a lot from him.

When Keith was appointed to the Federal Magistrates Court, he became immediately the judicial officer that I - indeed, I think everyone - knew he would be: calm, patient, thoughtful and respectful. He was a pleasure to appear before and in this most stressful, difficult and frequently traumatic area, retained his calm demeanour. I have been kindly copied in to some of the hundreds and hundreds of e-mails that have been received from Keith’s colleagues and friends. They are, as of one. A good example, I think, arrived only yesterday:

“We have all felt a deep sense of loss and grief at the news of Keith’s passing. Keith was a wonderful colleague, his dedication, genuine commitment to the litigants and collegiality were an outstanding example for all of us.”

Indeed they were – and are.

For nearly 13 years Keith was a much-loved member of Higgins Chambers, whose members, past and present, are here today. We laughed and swore and swapped war stories and, like today, occasionally, cried together. One of Stephen’s numerous abiding interests with which he regaled us during Keith’s time there was the lives and culture of North American Indians and their culture. I want to quote a chief of the Shawnee nation – Crouching Tiger. His words seem to me to accurately sum up major parts of Keith’s life and, in particular, the brave fight that has marked these last 12 months or so:

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people … Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger … Show respect to all people and grovel to none… Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your turn to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”

It is impossible to adequately sum up in a short timeframe, a life-long friendship that has cruelly and ludicrously been cut short. It is impossible to sum up in a short timeframe the affection and esteem in which Keith was held and the hole that will be left in the lives of those he loved and those who loved him and the hole, in the life of a court of which he was, rightly, very proud.

Today, I suspect we will all, in our own ways, attempt to make sense of something very painful which does not make sense.

Perhaps it is as cruelly simple as only the good dying young. And, perhaps we should all seek to take some comfort from looking at Keith’s family and his many friends and colleagues gathered here and knowing that the good that this man did, will indeed live after him.

Justice Peter Murphy

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