The HON SIR ANTHONY MASON AC KBE GBM QC reflected on 70 years of work in law in an address to the 2017 Law and Justice Awards at NSW Parliament on 19 October. Sir Anthony has been Patron of the Foundation for 20 years.
As I look back on my lifetime in the law there are many recollections that jostle for recognition. The first is a fact, strange as it may seem. I commenced first year law at Sydney University in 1946 – then the only law school in Sydney. Of a student intake of over 300, only nine female students graduated in 1950. Today, 60 per cent of Australian law students are female. The Sydney intake of about 300 in 1946 was much greater than any previous intake, because many ex-service personnel decided to do law.
Our lecturers, with only a few exceptions, were practising barristers or solicitors. There were only a handful of academic lecturers, all male. Our textbooks were almost exclusively English. This was because Australian law was, at that time, no more than a sub-branch of English law. We owe a debt of gratitude to our legal publishers whose enterprise, along with that of Australian judges, lawyers and lawmakers, have enabled us to develop a national legal system and jurisprudence suited to our circumstances, subject to an important qualification which is the major point I want to make.
My next recollection is of a tenancy case, my second or third brief as a barrister in Ryde Court of Petty Sessions (Ryde Police Court, as it was then called), where I appeared for the tenants Mr and Mrs Kotoff. We succeeded in resisting the landlord’s claim for possession. Mr Kotoff, who was in modern parlance a “tradie”, offered me a lift back to Phillip Street in his utility. Mr Kotoff and his wife travelled in the front, while I sat on the tray of the vehicle, keeping company with a cement-mixer and a dog of suspect antecedents. The dog kept jumping over me and barking furiously, no doubt celebrating our forensic triumph. My fee in total was nine guineas – seven on the brief and two for a conference – the standard fee at that time, the dollar equivalent being $18.50.
The point of this recollection is that counsel’s fees were then a small fraction of what they are today. My father once said to me, “Never trust a lawyer who occupies a luxurious office”.