After a distinguished legal career spanning over four decades, Christopher Robison retired as a judge of the District Court on 13 March 2023, after 28 years on the bench.
Admitted as a solicitor in 1977, Robison still remembers how nerve-wrecking it can be for a young lawyer to appear in court for the first time.
In an interview with LSJ, Robison reflects on his own experience and initial nervousness to appear in court. As a judge, whenever he sees a newly admitted solicitor appear in court for the first time he says, “I always think of myself in that position”.
“If I think a solicitor is straying away from the issues, I politely bring the solicitor back to the issues,” says Robison.
Drawing upon his extensive experience, Robison offers some valuable advice for young lawyers when it comes to advocacy: “keep it brief, relevant and focus on the real issues,” he says.
He also advises practitioners to “use the lectern on the bar table, don’t speak too quickly from the bar table and make eye contact with the judge”. These practices are useful for appearing before “judges who like to take notes” he adds. Robison reminds the profession that solicitors and barristers have a duty to be frank to the court and practitioners have the responsibility to “assist the court”.
Describing himself as “old school”, Robison encourages practitioners to pick up the phone, call the other side and engage in a “friendly chat” between lawyers. He also encourages practitioners to make notes of telephone calls and conversations, and to conduct regular file reviews to check whether there are looming limitation or court dates coming up.
Robison believes it is good practice for practitioners to check their diaries regularly and notes that in documenting things, practitioners not only protect the client but also themselves from any potential professional negligence claims. In a litigious society, he emphasises the need to document phone calls and any oral advice given to the client by documenting the advice given in a file note and confirming the advice in writing.
Continuing professional development
Law is a complex area; Robison urges practitioners to keep up with their continuing legal education and to “always be prepared to deal with issues that might arise in court”.
When it comes to working with barristers, Robison encourages barristers and solicitors to work together as a team, engage in timely communication and cooperate with each other so that everyone is aware of their role. Solicitors should not leave all of the work such as preparing and settling documents to the barrister as “solicitors are not administrative assistants”. Robison highlights the importance of keeping clients informed as to what is going on in their matter and encourages solicitors to “update the client even if nothing is happening in their case”.
When it comes to advocacy and whether the barrister or solicitor should appear in court, Robison acknowledges solicitors can be good advocates and “it comes down to a question of costs”. In Robison’s view, preparation is key and if solicitors are unsure about what to do before appearing in court, he recommends that practitioners refer to the court’s practice notes, as these provide clear guidance on what needs to be done. He notes that “we judges know when a solicitor has properly prepared”.
“Judges rely on the profession to assist the court,” says Robison. When a solicitor is giving an undertaking to the court, “I expect it to be complied with.”
Just, cheap and quick resolution of proceedings
Drawing on his extensive legal experience, Robison believes that the “commencement of proceedings should be an avenue of last resort”. He encourages practitioners to engage in a “friendly discussion” of the issues over the phone as “many matters can be sorted out before the court process is engaged”.
Where costs are concerned, Robison acknowledges that judges are aware of the high cost of litigation and that cases can take “a life of their own”. He suggests that, when setting matters down for hearings in the civil and criminal lists, solicitors should give the judge the most accurate estimate of time. This is because judges often have to deal with back-to-back cases and providing accurate time estimates is “in fairness to the profession, the court and other people waiting for their cases to be heard”.
The bottom line of dispensing justice is giving everyone a fair go. That is what justice is all about.
On the topic of a practitioner’s duty to their client and their duty to the court Robison notes, “you have a duty to the client, but the overriding duty is to the court”. During his time on the bench, Robison frequently referred barristers and solicitors to section 56 of the Civil Procedure Act. He reminds the profession of their duty to facilitate the “just, cheap and quick resolution of the real issues”.
“You shouldn’t just pay lip service to section 56. It is a statutory enactment that binds everyone,” says Robison.
“Being an obligation that binds the profession, their clients and everyone who comes to court.”
Robison jokes that the District Court needs bigger doorways to accommodate what he describes as “trolley load litigation”. As a judge, he recalls seeing bundles of documents, often occupying thousands of pages, lined up from one end of the bench to the other, which is not consistent with the objectives of section 56.
Robison refers to Justice Kunc’s decision in Ken Tugrul v Tarrants Financial Consultants Pty Ltd ACN 086 674 179 [No 5]  NSWSC 437 and his Honour’s comments regarding the just, cheap and quick resolution of the real issues to be decided. Robison emphasises the obligation of all parties when it comes to saving costs and conducting matters in a way that complies with the objectives of section 56.
Robison notes the strong emphasis on statements and affidavits in civil proceedings. He recalls hearing countless cases where there have been objections to affidavits on the basis of whether they are relevant or admissible under the Evidence Act and that is before any evidence is heard. He observes that this process “does not help compliance with section 56 and lawyers ought to know how to draft affidavits in an admissible form”.
Reflections on a long legal career
Robison did not initially want to pursue law, but eventually took up legal studies because he wanted to help people with their legal issues and “it was an instinctive feeling” that law was right for him. His father was a solicitor of long standing and Robison was articled to his father’s partner.
When he was admitted in 1977, the landscape of the legal profession looked very different. “There were not many female lawyers and no female judges on the Supreme Court and the High Court,” he recalls.
When he was appointed as a judge in the District Court, there were only three female judges on the District Court.
In his 28 years on the bench, some young barristers who have appeared before him went on to become the President of the NSW Bar Association and some went on to become justices of the Supreme Court of NSW.
Legacy and life after the bench
Reflecting on his time serving on the Council of Law Society, Robison describes how important it is to be elected to the Council and to represent the profession. “It is a great honour,” he says.
Robison was elected to the Young Lawyers Executive Council in 1985 and was elected to the Council of Law Society of New South Wales in 1986. He was awarded a medal for his service to the Council of Law Society in May 1992.
When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Robison says, “I want to be remembered for giving people a fair go”.
“Law is complex and cases are becoming more complex. Law can have a profound effect on people’s lives, and you have to remember that you are dealing with people,” he says.
“The bottom line of dispensing justice is giving everyone a fair go. That is what justice is all about.”
As for the future of the profession, Robison says he would like to see an increase in oral communication between solicitors and a move away from email communication.
As he settles into retirement, Robison, who has been heavily involved with Rotary and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, will continue his work with both volunteer organisations as he “enjoys being involved in the community and that should not stop when you are a judge”.