Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Issue 35: June 2009
Eulogy: The Hon. Mr Justice Peter Connolly - 1920-2009 Print E-mail

The following eulogy for the Hon. Mr Justice Peter Connolly was prepared and delivered by the Hon. Bruce McPherson CBE at St John's Cathedral on 11 May 2009.

connolly01.jpgPeter Connolly passed away peacefully on Sunday 3rd May. The news of his death was unwelcome even if in the end it was not unexpected.

It left me (and I am sure many others here today) with a deep sense of personal loss. He was my mentor and my friend.

His passing marked the end of an era. He was the last living Supreme Court Judge to have served in World War II. Someone and something is now gone that will never be restored to us.

The Hon. Peter David Connolly CSI, CBE, QC, was a Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland, of the Court of Appeal (of which he was the President) of Solomon Islands, and of the Court of Appeal of Kiribas. He was born in Sydney on 29th September 1920, and so, on May 3rd, was a little short of his 89th birthday. His father was a journalist and an author. In consequence, the family was not well off financially. Had it not been for Peter’s brilliant intellect, and his determination, his educational opportunities might have been severely restricted.

connolly03.jpgHe won scholarships to St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace, where he was both Dux and Head Boy in his final year in 1936. He then went on to St John’s College at the University of Queensland to study for an Arts degree, in French and German. Meanwhile, however, Hitler had other plans. On 19th June 1940 Peter enlisted in the AIF in which he continued to serve until his discharge in 1946. He had previously joined the Australian Military Force (or Militia) on 9th May 1939, and the discrepancy in birth dates between these two sources must be due to his having put up his age to enlist in the AIF in 1940. I am indebted to Justice John Logan of the Federal Court for initiating me into some of the mysteries of military records.

When he returned to University in 1946, he began the study of Law in place of Arts. He graduated LLB with first class Honours in 1948 and was awarded a University Medal. It was not until 1989 that he completed his Arts degree begun in 1938, whereupon he and daughter Zoe received their degrees on the same occasion. There is a newspaper photograph which, unusually for Press photographs, does justice to both of them. He had by then transferred his attention to classical Greek studies. In 1992 he went on to graduate (still using his original student number) as a Master of Literary Studies in ancient Greek, which is a language that most of us nowadays find difficult to decipher, let alone to read. Once upon a time, it was the mark of an educated man, and sometimes, as in Peter’s case, still is. My recollection is that he won the University prize in Greek, but declined it saying “give it to one of the younger ones”.

I mentioned that he took his LLB degree in 1948. It is right to point out that earlier in that year Peter had been appointed Lecturer in Constitutional Law at the University of Queensland. This was even before he had completed his degree in Law. It must surely be unique for a student to be teaching a major legal subject at a University before he himself has graduated. If you look at the earliest numbers of the UQ Law Journal you can there see notes written by P.D. Connolly, on recent High Court decisions on the Constitution. He maintained a lifelong interest and activity in the field of Education.

In 1976-1977 he was Queensland Convenor of the Committee on Education and the Arts. He was also Chairman of the Queensland Consultative Committee on Computerised Information Retrieval. There was not much in the way of cultural life in the community in which he did not participate, and often dominate. He was for many years President of Trustees of the Queensland Art Gallery. Music was not overlooked. He was a Director of the Queensland Opera Company and, from 1961-1963, President of the Musica Viva Society in Queensland.

I return now to Peter’s Military Service I said that he enlisted in the AIF in June 1940. He served in the Middle East until 1942, then in New Guinea until March 1944, and after that in Morotai and Borneo from 1945 to 1946. He began with the 2nd/12th Australian Infantry Battalion; then later at the HQ of the 18th Infantry Brigade; and then with the 7th Infantry Brigade. After his return to Australia, he became Commanding Officer of the Queensland University Regiment; and of the 9th Battalion, Royal Queensland Regiment; and of the Command and Staff Training Unit (S Qld). Alan Grummitt, now a leading international consulting engineer, is here today. He recalls his days in the University Regiment when he was Colonel Connolly’s driver. He was permitted to use the car to visit a girlfriend, who became his wife, and who lived in the same street as Peter.

From being a private in 1939, Peter Connolly had risen to Captain during the war, and afterwards to full Colonel. I will not enumerate all his campaign and war medals; but it is fitting to remember his Mention in Despatches for service in New Guinea. The official History of the New Guinea Offensives records some of Captain Connolly’s actions with the 18th Brigade on Shaggy Ridge on 2nd/3rd January 1944. Among other acts, I remember at the Bar it was said he took a platoon over the Ridge to eliminate enemy machine guns. On the last occasion some five or more years ago, when Jackie and I had Peter to dinner for his birthday, it was evident his mind was beginning to wander. During dinner he suddenly turned to Jackie, and whispered confidentially to her “My word, it was cold on Shaggy Ridge last night”.

Old soldiers commonly decline to tell us their stories. John Macrossan once remarked to me that we were the first Supreme Court Judges appointed in Brisbane not to have served in World War II. So we are all condemned to be accursed as gentlemen in bed. One night I was in the Common Room at the Inns of Court when a visiting Victorian barrister came in. He asked me if we had a fellow named Connolly at our Bar. I said we had two. He said that he had served with him in the war, adding that he was “mad”. That, I said, did not readily differentiate; and he went on to say he meant not mad crazy but mad courageous. He then related a story about their unit being paraded and asked who would volunteer to be dropped by parachute behind enemy lines in one of the Jap strongholds. Peter Connolly was the first to spring forward. Whether this action proceeded I do not know. But once when we were together in the Solomons, I repeated what I had been told that time in the Common Room, and asked Peter about it. “Not a word of truth in it” he said. I knew at once that the story I had been told was correct.

It is convenient now to mention Peter’s Parliamentary career. He was a member of the Liberal party. In that role he was, from 1957 to 1960, the elected member of the Legislative Assembly for Kurilpa. My recollection is that his campaign manager stole the seat from him in order to keep it for himself. I also think I remember that he later had to resign his seat for having taken bribes in connection with the Parliamentary office. When Peter lost the endorsement, Mr Tom Aitken was heard to say “the Liberal Party just blew its brains out”. He did not seek election again; but at the Bar, he continued to advise the Party and its members on legal questions. On one occasion it concerned a member who had been double-crossed by his campaign manager. Among other matters in Parliament, I believe Peter was responsible for the legislation requiring employers to insure against their common law liability for injuries to their workers.

It was of course in the law that Peter distinguished himself, and for which he will be remembered by so many of us. Even during the hard times post-war at the Bar, he quickly established a successful practice, first in Rockhampton and then in Brisbane. Recognition of his legal ability was not confined to Queensland. Justice Gummow of the High Court telephoned me last Wednesday to say that Allen & Allen, the leading firm of solicitors in Sydney, briefed Connolly to advise their client Bank of NSW, and that his advice was afterwards constantly being re-read and relied on at Allen’s in the 1960s. That was a remarkable achievement at a time when it was the practice never to brief outside the State.

He took silk (became a QC) in 1963. In 1967 he was elected President of the Queensland Bar Association, a position he held for three years. He was President of the Australian Bar Association from 1967-1968 and President of the Law Council of Australia in 1968 to 1970, as well as a Councillor of the International Bar Association. During this time I began to realise what dedication to duty was about. I was his junior in a coal mining inquiry concerning a fatal accident in a mine near Ipswich. It was arranged that we inspect the mine on a Monday, and I was to drive us out there in my Mini-Minor. He arrived back in Brisbane extremely ill after a weekend of Law Council business in Melbourne. Despite my entreaties, he insisted on going on with the inspection. Our first stop was in North Quay, about opposite the Inns of Court, where he asked me to wait while he was sick in the foliage on the river bank. (No Riverside expressway then).  At the mine we donned hard hats, and, looking rather like the Premier, went down into the depths. On surfacing, once more we conferred with the client, after which Peter excused himself, went round the corner, and was sick again. His only reaction to my suggestion that he was far too ill to have come on the inspection was to say “the client expected it”. He then slept all the way back to Brisbane.

As the leader of the Bar, and therefore of course extremely busy, he was nevertheless always helpful to us junior barristers. I certainly found him to be so. Justice Susan Kiefel now of the High Court reminded me of this in her case only the other day. In court, his ability both as a cross-examiner and as an advocate, was legendary. We all learned from him. But what impressed me most was his capacity to pick up someone else’s area of knowledge, to simplify it and thoroughly perceive its nuances. I never saw anyone else able to do it with the same ease. It also enabled him to destroy his opponent’s own expert witness with a few well-conceived questions. Through being cross-examined by Peter, some of them learnt things about their own science they had obviously not realised before. He was justly feared by witnesses; but, although at times impatient with some of us, I never saw him behave angrily with witnesses in the box. He could be caustic: “You must bear with us city folk while I ask you yet again …”, he said putting the question a third time to a rural witness who had decided to be evasive in his answers.

On top of all this, he was just about the most un-money minded person I have ever met, certainly in the legal profession. His loyal secretary, Mrs Kirkwood, used to keep some records for the purposes of charging fees, but she often did not know much about all the work he had done,.In cases in which I was his junior I had an obvious interest in seeing him charge for what we had done together, and I helped to some extent. But I think a great many clients paid much less than full price when they should have been paying double. In his address, on Peter’s retirement from the Bench in 1990, the Attorney-General said the Solicitor-General had told him that, to the end of his career as a QC, Peter acted for and charged no fees to Public Defence clients who could not afford to pay someone of his standing in the profession. In court he was astonishingly quick in his responses. On one occasion as Peter’s junior, I noticed some inadmissible evidence being introduced by the other side, His attention was diverted elsewhere at the time, so I hopped up and objected. The judge, with a pained expression asked “Am I to be subjected to objections from both counsel at one end of the Bar table?” Peter was already on his feet, saying “I rather thought, Your Honour, that only one counsel at this end of the bar table had objected”. We won the point but lost the case, so after that I held my tongue.

connolly02.jpgPeter was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court in 1977, and thirteen years later reached the statutory retiring age of 70. At the time of his appointment, the Court was generally in need of some intellectual stiffening, and he provided it. He was a superb lawyer. He discharged a large part of the court’s workload, doing it quickly, and with admirable skill and judgment. When I left the court sixteen years after him, his decisions were still being quoted, both as authoritative statements of legal principle and for their clarity of expression. A place ought to have been found for him on the High Court of Australia. But Judges are not often appointed there after the age of 60, and Peter was already 57 when he went to the Supreme Court. He had spent too many years in the service of his country as the War.

In his conduct as a Judge he was renowned for his wit and sense of humour. A story that is still doing the rounds of the Bar today arose from his belief that every solicitor in a certain part of Queensland was incompetent. He was very nearly right. Finding that the case before him emanated from there, Peter picked up a volume of the Supreme Court Rules and dropped it over his back, remarking as he did “Then I won’t be needing these”. He himself suffered misfortune stoically. At the Queensland Club at one time members used to be asked to leave their keys in their cars. One day he came out from lunch to find someone in a white coat seated in his car and obviously trying to thread it out through the other vehicles. Peter helped by halting or waving him on. At last the car reached the exit, whereupon it took off at speed down George Street never to be seen again.

Peter was explaining this to me a few days later adding that at least he was insured against theft, “But surely Peter”, I said “theft is a taking without consent. From what you say, you stood by, as well as actively assisting while the car was taken.” He looked at me quizzically, and said “Get out. Go now, get out”.

Inexcusably, so far I have said nothing yet about the family. “Who’s Who” in its laconic way records the children simply as 2s.2d. In fact, they are Claudia-Jane, David, John and Zoe. The last two were both Associates in my time, he to Justice Dowsett and Zoe to her father. Some of these family members will say a word to two later in the service. Then there is Paula Chandler who, for the past thirty years or more, has been Peter’s companion, comforter and supporter. When we think of Peter we remember each of them. Our sympathy goes out to them in their particular loss, which is so much greater even than ours. Zoe told me she hopes her father has gone to somewhere where he can have a good talk. He loved conversation, she said.

A Scottish paraphrase is a fitting end to this lengthy but nevertheless condensed tribute:


Naked as from the earth we came

And enter’d life at first.

Naked we to the earth return,

And mix with kindred dust.


Whate’er we fondly call our own

Belongs to heav’n’s great Lord.

The blessings lent us for a day

Are soon to be restor’d.


‘Tis God that lifts our comforts high,

Or sinks them in the grave.

He gives; and, when He takes away,

He takes but what He gave.


Then, ever blessed be His name!

His goodness swell’d our store;

His justice but resumes its own;

‘Tis ours still to adore.


Here was a man. When comes such another?


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