Supreme career comes to end for Justice Duncan McMeekin
JUSTICE. What does it mean?
To most of us, it means fairness, lack of prejudice, neutrality, open-mindedness, and just behaviour or treatment.
But for Duncan McMeekin, who today retires Friday from being the Justice of the Supreme Court of Rockhampton and Central Region, it means several things.
It's having people stand in front of you who have committed crimes and you are the one who must make the decision about the appropriate punishment for the crime committed.
It's having fulfilled the dream your father had for his own life and achieving far more than he could have imagined.
It's endless hours of writing up decisions on criminal and civil cases, travelling with your associate from Mackay to Bundaberg, having only one person in your industry that you can talk to about your job because you need to be unbiased and just, and it means spending a lot of your time away from your family.
But how did a boy born in a remote village in New Guinea end up wearing a prestigious gown and wig and being the ultimate law enforcement in Central Queensland?
Born in Rabaul in 1955, the son of a teacher who spent his nights working on a law degree, Justice McMeekin was raised in an awe-inspiring environment. D
uring an interview with The Morning Bulletin before his Valedictory Ceremony today, he said the defining moment in his life that led him down the legal fraternity path was, as an eight-year-old, watching his father walk down to the Bar table in the old Supreme Court building in George St for his admission.
"I remember my dad walking down the front of the courtroom wearing the wig and gown," he said.
"I thought it was an exciting life…fighting for people.
"My father made it out to be the best career."
Justice McMeekin explained that his father never practised law as at that time in society, it was perceived as a "risky business" financially and being a teacher was a safe, financially secure government job - even if it meant working overseas. His father rose to the position of the head of primary school education in New Guinea, completed his Masters in Education and taught at the Australian School of Pacific Administration.
"He was a scholarly sort of chap," Justice McMeekin said.
"He did his thesis on teaching indigenous people."
He didn't stop there talking about his father, going on to tell the story about how he returned home from boarding school one day to find his father had hand-built a whole train city - including hills, valleys, little cars - in one room of the family home in 12 months. Justice McMeekin was sent away to boarding school because his mother was ill. When Justice McMeekin and his
younger brothers Damien and Drew were still young, their mother ended up at the Chermside Chest Hospital (now known as the Prince Charles Hospital) with tuberculosis. It was a hospital Justice McMeekin got to know very well later in life when he worked as an orderly in the paraplegic ward, while studying law.
His schooling was back and forth between Australia and New Guinea, including four years at Nudgee Junior College, then Port Moresby High School, two years at Marist Brothers in Sydney and eventually back to Nudgee College for four years, graduating as a senior at 16-years-old.
His graduating class included Queensland Chief Magistrate Ray Rinaudo, orthopaedic surgeon Dr Peter Myers who worked with the Brisbane Broncos and the Australian Rugby Union teams, Dr Mark Loane who captained the Wallabies and is now a leading ophthalmic surgeon, and Queensland District Court Judge David Andrews.
Justice McMeekin completed a Bachelor of Economics (1975) and a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) (1977) at The University of Queensland while staying at St Leo's College - where Central Queensland's new Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Graeme Crow, also lived while studying.
His first full-time job was in 1976 at the then Public Curator's office (now known as the Public Trustee).
"My job was to put stamps on envelopes," he commented with a chuckle.
Justice McMeekin was still completing his university studies at the time and in September that year, he acquired his first job in the legal world - working at a law firm featuring John Elliott (now Family Court Judge), Bill Stubbs, Virgil Power (a descendant of the first Central Judge) and John Robertson (now District Court Judge at Maroochydore).
The following June, he was admitted as a barrister and later that month, he drove to Rockhampton to set up his practice by July 1.
He spent his first two weeks staying with life-long friend Dr Anthony "Freddo" Keating.
It was during the drive up to Rockhampton from Brisbane that he met his wife, Elizabeth. Justice McMeekin had been asked by a cousin who was Elizabeth's friend, to give her a lift to her family property at Calliope. They were married three years later and now have four daughters - Deanna, Erica, Sophia and Sasha - and four grandchildren.
There were only three other barristers in town at that time - Stan Jones, Bob Hall and Dan Ryan. Then Grant Britton (now a former Rockhampton District Court Judge) replaced Mr Ryan, but still Justice McMeekin was the youngest barrister in town.
"It was really tough," he said.
"Those guys were really tough. They knew their way around a court room."
In 1982, they pooled their resources and bought a building at 170 Quay St - the Trustee Chambers - for them all to work in. It was sold in 2003. Eventually, Rockhampton's barristers all moved into the old Supreme Courthouse adjacent to the Virgil Power Building in 2010.
Just before being sworn in as Central Region's 12th Judge of the Supreme Court, Justice McMeekin spent five years working in Brisbane.
"I felt that I couldn't get the variety and standard of work that I wanted to get if I stayed here in Rockhampton," he explained.
"I wanted to appear against the best counsel and all my peers in Rockhampton had been appointed to the Bench." He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland in October 2007 and Central Judge in January 2008.
Since that time, he has presided over several cases that left lasting impressions.
One of those was where a Central Queensland coal miner, Harold Kerle, was awarded more than $1 million compensation after crashing his vehicle while driving home at 6.30am in October 2008 from Norwich Park mine at Middlemount after doing four night shifts in a row.
Mr Kerle suffered brain damage because of the crash. Justice McMeekin said it was the first successful lawsuit he was aware of where a worker obtained compensation for an accident caused by fatigue.
"It was the longest decision I had to write - 108 pages," he said. "It took me some months."
Four senior and three junior counsels appeared at the trial.
CFMEU Mining and Energy Division president Steve Smyth at the time described the case as a "landmark decision" which could change the way mining companies respond to fatigue. READ MORE HERE: CQ miner wins $1.25m fatigue crash lawsuit
There was also the double homicide at Cawarral by a then 19-year-old man, Hayden Michael Finch.
Finch murdered his father Murray and stepmother Leone Musgrove who were found in a mine shaft on their property, each with a single gunshot wound to the head.
"He gave evidence and denied the murders," Justice McMeekin reflected.
"He had problems with drugs (as per the cannabis possession charge dealt with at the time of the life sentence with non-parole of 20 years for the murders).
"Nearly every case we deal with involves drugs."
Another murder case that sticks in his mind is where an infant's throat was slit by their uncle, who suffered from schizophrenia.
Justice McMeekin outlined how this case was hard for the jury as they had to decide to send him to an institution or jail as the defence argued he was not guilty due to his mental illness. READ MORE HERE: Man barely blinks at life sentence
However, he described one of the most distressing cases being where a father's actions resulted in the death of a toddler after being locked in his car. Justice McMeekin said the parents had separated and the mother had an urgent matter arise so the father took the child into his care. However, the father had run up to his apartment to print off a university assignment and while waiting, he received a call which distracted him and he forgot he'd left the child in the car.
"The defendant cried throughout the whole proceedings," Justice McMeekin said.
"Even the prosecutor cried.
"I put him (the dad) in jail. I often ask myself if that was the right decision…but I think he wanted to go."
A case that required careful balance of conflicting considerations by Justice McMeekin was when Queensland Health applied to the court to be able to carry out an abortion on a 12-year-old girl.
Abortion is illegal in Queensland unless it is authorised, justified or excused by law.
One of Justice McMeekin's decisions resulted in the law being changed.
The decision involving Irish backpacker Evan Joseph Kelly being injured at Lake Wabby on Fraser Island after running down a sand dune and tumbling into water in 2007 resulted in the law being changed so people who get injured in National Parks can no longer sue for damages. READ MORE HERE: Tourist who broke spine running down dunes to get payout
Justice McMeekin said prior to that, there were 18 significant injuries including 13 injuries involving the back, neck or spine from accidents at Lake Wabby in the previous 17 years.
The Mackay ratepayer saga was another that resulted in the law being changed after a group of investment property owners took Mackay Regional Council to court over its decision to try and impose a rating system where homeowners would be charged more if a house wasn't their primary residence.
Justice McMeekin ruled in favour of the investment property owners.
As for Rockhampton - Justice McMeekin described the rape and murder of grandmother Iris Daphne Temperly, 82, on Australia Day in 2010 as "the most brutal attack" in any case he heard. READ THE ORIGINAL STORY HERE: Life sentence for granny killer
He sentenced David Samuel Aubrey Ray to life for the rape, which was overturned by the Court of Appeal and the sentence reduced, but his life sentence for murder still remained in place. READ ABOUT THE COURT OF APPEAL SENTENCE REDUCTION HERE: Granny rapist's sentences reduced
In reflecting on the job, Justice McMeekin said "it was far busier than I expected".
"I had one year where there were seven homicides," he said. That was 2010.
The year before he presided at the trial where three prisoners were found guilty of murdering an inmate Robert James Buckley, 23, at the Capricornia Correctional Centre. The trial alone ran for seven weeks, then there were appeals, three applications to the Court of Appeal and one to the High Court. READ THE LATEST HERE: Deadly trio of Etna Creek killers lose appeal bid again
Justice McMeekin said he believed it may have been the longest committal in Queensland history going for 14-16 months, off and on.
He said in the past five years, civil case numbers heard had increased and kept the Supreme Court in Central Queensland busy, whereas murder case trial numbers had reduced, mainly through pleas, with the last trial he presided over being more than two years ago.
As for the future, "I don't have a clear picture in my mind", he said. However, there is a strong likelihood Justice McMeekin's future involves his hobbies - hiking and photography.
Justice McMeekin said a friend concerned about His Honor's health hooked him on hiking when they were in their 40s and they trotted off to the South-West Track in Tasmania on their first adventure.
What he described next about what happened to his "concerned friend" makes one's skin tingle - after carrying an overly heavy backpack (if you've watched Wild featuring Reese Witherspoon, Monster would be a similar size) across the Ironbound Range - a 905-metre climb - the skin on the bottom of his feet fell off when he removed his shoes and socks.
"He (who weighed 110kg alone) had to walk," Justice McMeekin said.
He said Dr Loane did help carry the injured man across a creek before they reached the next camp, which was where someone went through the injured man's backpack and threw out books on wildlife, a chess set and other "extras" he'd packed.
The next adventure was to New Zealand.
Dr Loane, in charge of research, found the hike trail was only susceptible to a cyclone every 100 years. Unfortunately, the team picked that 100-year date to do their hike. "
We saw nothing. Just the boots in front of us," Justice McMeekin.
He has his eyes on tackling an American hike in the Yosemites in his retirement.
Outside court in CQ
- Four years trustee of the Rockhampton Girls Grammar School.
- A trustee of the Rockhampton Art Gallery for five years.
- Eight years as a member then Chairman of the Committee of the Central Queensland Branch of Relationships Australia.
- A member then Chairman of the Judiciary Committee of Rockhampton and Districts Rugby Union for almost 20 years.
Supreme Court of Rockhampton Past Judges
- Justice Virgil Power December 20, 1895 to December 20, 1910.
- Justice Lionel Oscar Lukin December 21, 1910 to March 31, 1922.
- Justice Charles Jameson April 1, 1922 to December 16, 1922.
- Justice Sir James William Blair K. C. M. G. December 17, 1922 to April 23, 1925.
- Justice Sir William Flood Webb K. B. E. April 24, 1925 to July 21, 1925.
- Justice Frank Tennison Brennan July 21, 1925 to September 1, 1947.
- Justice Sir Joseph Aloysius Sheehy K. B. E. September 2, 1947 to February 10, 1965.
- Justice Douglas Malcolm Campbell February 11, 1965 to September 24, 1973.
- Justice Jack Lawrence Kelly CBE RFD September 25, 1973 to January 15, 1978.
- Justice Alan George Demack AO January 16, 1978 to May 19, 2000.
- Justice Peter Richard Dutney May 20, 2000 to January 13, 2008.
- Justice Duncan Vincent Cook McMeekin January 14, 2008 to March 9, 2018.
Queensland Law Society president Ken Taylor:
"On behalf of the solicitors of Queensland, I would like to congratulate Justice McMeekin on his career of 41 years, and wish him the very best on his retirement from the bench. Justice McMeekin is well respected in his local community and is an intelligent man who makes sound judgments. He has certainly made his mark on our profession with his work as a barrister in Rockhampton and Brisbane, followed by more than 10 years on the bench in Rockhampton.
"I applaud him for his dedication to our justice system and in service of the residents of Mackay. I hope that Justice McMeekin will go on to enjoy spending time on his photography and outdoor pursuits. It is a well-deserved retirement from the bench with our judiciary carrying out excellent work each and every day, upholding justice for our state. Our regional magistrates are also faced with increasing workloads and less magistrates to undertake the work. "We all look forward to seeing what comes next for Justice McMeekin and wish him the very best."
Bar Association of Queensland Chief executive Kelsey Rissman:
"Justice McMeekin was admitted as a barrister of the Supreme Court of Queensland on 6 June 1977 having graduated from the University of Queensland with honours. He commenced practice in Rockhampton where he developed a substantial practice. His considerable abilities as an advocate resulted in his appointment as Senior Counsel on 17 November 1998.
"Whilst in Rockhampton Justice McMeekin made many friends, was involved in a number of sporting groups and served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Rockhampton Girls Grammar School. His Honour and his wife, Elizabeth, raised their four daughters in the district.
"Justice McMeekin relocated to Brisbane in 2003 and quickly developed a successful practice there. On 15 October 2007 Justice McMeekin was appointed as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland and on 14 January 2008 he was appointed as the Central Judge, the resident Supreme Court Justice for the central region. He is responsible for a number of significant legal decisions in Queensland.
"A hallmark of Justice McMeekin's practice as a barrister and conduct as a Justice of the Supreme Court has been a combination of high intellect, unfailing courtesy and a sense of humour. His taking of silk and his appointment to the bench were each warmly welcomed by members of the profession.
"Like his two immediate predecessors, Justice McMeekin has maintained an excellent relationship with solicitors and barristers in the Central District and supported the professional development and collegiality of the profession."