The Cairns Bar – Thriving in FNQ
The City of Cairns, uncontroversially, is the capital of North Queensland, no matter what our counterparts in Townsville may say. It continues to be inhabited by Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people. A mecca for tourists seeking sun, the Great Barrier Reef and fun at Gilligan’s Backpackers, it also maintains a serious side.
The Cairns bar is the northernmost bar in Queensland. It services a core geographical area north to the Torres Straits, south to Innisfail and west to Doomadgee. Within these metes and bounds – among other towns – may be found the larger centres of Port Douglas, Mossman, Cooktown, Weipa, Bamaga and Thursday Island, located on or close to the coast, and Atherton, Kuranda and Malanda on the Atherton Tablelands (these centres have courthouses).
Encapsulated in the peculiarities of the North are not only geographical and climactic conundrums, but unique and idiosyncratic matters in law, lore and culture.
Cairns was established in October 1878 as a port. Since then, several courthouses have been erected.
The first courthouse was located in the customs reserve and may have shared the same premises as the first customs house. It is likely that a temporary courthouse was erected by the then Works Departments in 1877.
In 1883 a more substantial and permanent courthouse was erected on the Esplanade. The Cairns Post in 1884 described it as “the finest building erected in Cairns – in appearance, design and construction”.
In just six years, the local court had outgrown the courthouse. It was described by judges as the “worst on the circuit”, and was eventually replaced in 1921 by what is now known as the Old Courthouse in Abbot Street.
In 1992, that building was abandoned upon completion of construction of the current Courthouse in Sheridan Street but remained a place frequented by the profession seeking a long cool beverage upon transformation to “The Cairns Courthouse Hotel”.
Trial and execution of Ellen Thompson
Any descent into Cairns Bar legal history must contemplate not just those in the profession, but those who have been at the law’s mercy (or lack thereof). Ellen Thompson’s story unfolded in Far North Queensland in 1886.
Ellen’s committal on a charge of murder ensued in 1886 in the first Port Douglas Courthouse, which still stands in its original site in Wharf Street. She was later convicted. She is the only woman in Queensland sentenced to death and then, at age 42, hanged.
The trial drew attention from all corners of Australia and highlights the responsibility of the criminal justice system to ensure that justice is served not only for the victim, but also for the accused. If only Ellen had had the benefit of representation from the Cairns Bar, her ‘strenuous denial’ and ‘maintenance of innocence’ may have had more purchase with the jury who convicted her, and judge who sentenced her to death.
Ellen migrated to Australia at age 11. She married and bore five children but was widowed in her thirties. She eventually made her way to North Queensland, settling in Cooktown with her children. She took up service as a housekeeper to William Thompson, who owned a farm on the Mossman River at Bonnie Doon, north of Port Douglas. They eventually married and Ellen went onto to have her sixth child.
The relationship became violent. William Thompson was reputed to threaten violence towards neighbours and family members. Eventually, the strain of the circumstances resulted in the children being sent away and Ellen remained in the farm homestead, and William lived separately in a nearby cottage.
Ellen was a tiny, hardworking canefarmer’s spouse. She struck up a friendship with a young (28 year old) marine deserter John Harrison. Later, William Thompson was found dead, with a bullet to his head. The town gossiped and eventually Ellen and John Harrison were charged with William’s murder.
The prosecution alleged the motive was for financial gain. Ellen and John Harrison were found guilty of the murder. Trail judge, Justice Pope Cooper, said upon sentencing that the evidence against them was:
…to my mind is quite sufficient. One of the jury has thought to make a recommendation of mercy on the grounds that he is of the opinion that there may have been a quarrel between the murdered man and Harrison immediately preceding the murder. I will, of course, forward that recommendation to the proper authorities. I can give you no more hope than that. That you, Harrison killed the old man Thompson, I have no doubt whatever. The jury have found that you did so, and I confidently believe that Thompson’s wife was present at the time aiding and abetting you. You committed a most cruel murder, and you did it, in my opinion, for sake of gain…. you be hanged by the neck until your body be dead.
When asked if she had anything to say, Ellen professed her innocence and begged for mercy. She went onto exclaim,
Here I am, in this dreadful north, disgraced and ruined.
On the eve of his hanging, John Harrison is said to have confessed to killing William in self-defence. He went on to spurn Ellen saying he only “wanted the (William Thompson’s) sugar”.
This did not stop the hanging of Ellen. Pleas to the Governor for clemancy were eschewed. She asked for her children, and it has been reported that some of her final words were:
Goodbye everybody. I forgive everybody. I never shot my husband. I never did anybody any harm. I will die like an injured angel.
Ellen’s hanging at Boggo Road Gaol was particularly brutal, her hanging not being “clean”. It prompted a move to abolish capital punishment, which eventually happened in 1922. No woman hanged in the interim, but it was too late to save Ellen.
The Cairns Bar – who and where
The decentralisation of the bar – away from the CBD of Queensland’s capital city – is not new or newsworthy, despite what the towndogs may think.
Even Ellen Thompson’s trial was held before Justice Cooper in the Criminal Sittings of the Northern Circuit Court as far back as the 1800s. The regional centres of Queensland have variously housed barristers’ chambers for well over 150 years.
Over the span of the Cairns’ legal history, several chamber groups have been established, and Maritime Chambers is Cairns’ oldest. Formed in 1984, Graeme Houston remains there alongside Chris Ryall. Two District Court judges came from the original Maritime Chambers: their Honours Francis Daly (our first resident District Court judge from 1989) and Peter White. Their Honours are long retired.
Endeavour Chambers was established in 2013 and boasts as a former chamber member Cairns’ most recent and popular appointment to the bench, Magistrate Michael Dalton.
Of their current members, Mark Glenn remains their head of chambers having signed the roll in 1986, and his work consists of personal injuries litigation and other civil matters. Laura Neil likewise brings years of experience to their chambers with her expertise in personal injuries, workers’ compensation, TPD, and medical negligence law.
Melia Benn is Mamu and Gunggandji. She is one of only two Aboriginal women barristers at the Queensland bar and has a practice in class action proceedings, coronial inquests, discrimination, regulatory prosecutions and human rights matters.
Brydie Bilic commenced practice in 2018 and has had success at the private bar including in the Court of Appeal and special leave applications to the High Court.
Trinity Chambers was established in 1993. Of the original group Andrew Philp KC remains. Andrew Sinclair was appointed to the Magistrates Court in 2017.
Philp KC still occupies the unofficial role as ‘Godfather’ of the Cairns private bar, if not the bar from Rockhampton northward. Not much gets past him, with his phone running hot between cigarette breaks and QantasLink flights up and down the east coast of Queensland and giving ethics advice as a Queensland Bar Ethics Counsellor. Andrew celebrates 20 years of being a Silk this year. He is the undisputed “King of the North”.
Michael Jonnson KC took silk in 2015 will soon celebrate 20 years at the Cairns Bar. His outlines of argument cause some opponents (and judges) to scratch their head as they are lead down rabbit holes to case law from the 1600s via the centre of the universe, as they attempt to comprehend his footnotes.
Christopher Taylor is a sessional member to QCAT and often adjudicates complex building and construction matters.
Andrea Lawrence is a family law barrister, practicing in related jurisdictions.
Rachelle Logan practices primarily in criminal law particularly in complex and serious matters.
Rachelle and Andrea are members of the Bar Association’s Regional Issues sub-committee, being proud representatives of the regions.
In 2007, Equity Chambers was formed. The strength of their history is evident in 2023. Joseph Jacobs, James Sheridan, Tim Grau and Kelly Goodwin bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to a broad range of practice areas.
Joseph is an original member of the group. James Sheridan is the regional representative on the Bar Association Council.
John Eylander and John Seccull are members of Commercial Court Chambers. Their practice areas are broad and extend through the state. They each significantly contribute to the development of young advocates in the James Cook University Advocacy Program.
Separate chambers are maintained by Frank Lanza, Stephanie Williams, Shaune Williams, Rebekah Bassano and Rod Curtin, who holds the position of Deputy Commissioner of the Family Responsibilities Commission.
Cairns’ employed barristers are Aaron Dunkerton (DPP), Miles Dickson (DPP), Mark Pollock (LAQ), Rachel Boivin (DPP), Simon Bright (ATSILS), Helen Price (Qld Health) and Judy Collins.
The attrition rate of experienced and senior barristers in Cairns has been substantial since our city’s last feature in Hearsay in 2009. Thankfully the primary reason for this is the plentiful judicial appointments ‘from the regions and for the regions’.
From our ranks, the following appointments have been made:
- Justice Jim Henry – Supreme Court
- Justice Peter Tree – Federal Circuit and Family Court (Div 1)
- Judge Josephine Willis AM – Federal Circuit and Family Court (Div 2)
- Judge Dean Morzone KC – District Court
- Judge Tracy Fantin – District Court
- Judge Joshua Trevino KC – District Court
- Magistrate Pearson
- Magistrate Priestly
- Magistrate Bentley
- Magistrate Benson
- Coroner Wilson
- Magistrate Dalton
- Acting Magistrate Meoli
We exist and are thriving here in FNQ! Feel free to brief us anytime. We work hard and play hard.