Vale Justice Peter Dutney

By skepticlawyer

Sometimes, death is a thief, rather than a mere killer. At this moment, I think it has stolen a good and fair man from me, and I am not happy. I am, however, determined to honour that man’s memory in the way recommended by Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations: by speaking about his fine qualities.

Midway through the final year of my law degree, I had the good fortune to be appointed associate (law clerk/pupil) to Justice Peter Dutney of the Supreme Court of Queensland. I graduated, did a brief stint at a top-tier law firm and then wended my way north to take up my  new position.

At the time, this meant a few rather large shifts: although from the country originally, I had never lived in Central Queensland and moving to Rockhampton represented not only a large wrench after a long period in Brisbane but a cultural shock to the system. Cairns and Townsville (my family’s long time stomping grounds) were notably greener and more soothing. I remember sitting down to watch the cricket with my partner and seeing telly advertisements for livestock, artificial insemination and… bulls. Lots of bulls. We looked at each other, quizzical, both concerned as to whether we’d made the right decision in coming to Rocky.

We need not have worried.

Eighteen of the more enjoyable months of my life were spent lawyering in Rocky and working for Justice Dutney, a clever, likeable and lively fitness nut with a pierced ear and a tendency to change his hair colour on a whim. My partner’s concerns that no-one would employ a man with obvious Aboriginal ancestry (unlike many Aboriginals, he could not and cannot ‘pass for white’) turned out to be unfounded. We had a lovely Queenslander on the hill to catch the breezes, a quarter acre block, an American Staffordshire and several guns. Mangoes dropped into our backyard from two massive trees if we failed to eat them. We played hockey and went to the beach and turned the colour of our silky oak dining table in the sunshine.

For his part, Justice Dutney was rewarded for his willingness to do ‘country service’ with a series of tricky cases. Just before I arrived, he’d dealt with Robert Long and the Childers Backpacker Hostel fire. Just before I finished my time, we travelled to Townsville where he was presiding judge in the Palm Island/Chris Hurley case. The whole time I knew him he encouraged friends, associates and fellow lawyers to become involved in fitness activities, especially cycling. I never got into the latter (even though I’ve become a keen cyclist since arriving in the UK) because I cannot abide wearing a helmet, but I did lots of other sporty things.

Justice Dutney was the ‘central Judge’ for eight years; his replacement, Justice Duncan McMeekin (a man I also had the good fortune to meet and from whom I learnt a great deal about trial advocacy) had this to say in yesterday’s Rockhampton Morning Bulletin:

Through his personal influence a number of the local lawyers took up cycling, which was his passion. In earlier years he had been an enthusiastic tri-athlete and had competed at the Noosa triathlon over 10 successive years.

And he not only competed. More than one young lawyer was surprised to find that the volunteer kneeling at their feet putting on their identification bracelet for the event was a Supreme Court judge.

You see, Justice Peter Dutney died on Friday after riding ninety kilometers as part of a bike tour. He was 54. He is survived by a young wife and two (far younger) sons. He did these things regularly and they were always planned such as to emphasize enjoyment over kamikaze silliness. According to a close friend, the following transpired:

Finished his 90km leg of the bike ride in the Simpson Desert he was on. Loudly declared to all and sundry how great it was to be alive. Had dinner, a shower, dessert, a few beers and wines and very suddenly keeled over off his stool and died.

Since his death (and that didn’t take long), a Lyn Roberts from the Heart Foundation has waded into the fray with the following:

National chief executive of the Heart Foundation Lyn Roberts said people should understand their risk factors in regard to heart disease, particularly as they got older.

“When these tragedies occur, the message really for the community is that everybody should go along to his or her general practitioner and have a conversation to understand what their risk factor really is,” Dr Roberts said.

Fifty-four years is too short, yes, but I’d much rather die having lived life fully and expressively, even if that means being cut down sooner rather than later. Justice Peter Dutney lived a large and fascinating life and when he died on Friday, his contribution to the state of Queensland’s legal profession and wider community was already secure. Here is Queensland Chief Justice Paul de Jersey, trying not to underestimate Peter Dutney’s remarkable achievements and contributions to the public life of his state:

Queensland’s Chief Justice Paul de Jersey, AC, and Attorney-General Cameron Dick, in a joint statement, today both paid tribute to Justice Dutney, describing his passing as a great loss to the state of Queensland and the judiciary.

Justice de Jersey said Justice Dutney’s colleagues and friends in the judiciary and legal community had been shocked by his sudden death.

“The Supreme Court mourns the tragic loss of a fine judge, of brilliant judicial accomplishment and indefatigable in the discharge of his judicial duties,” the Chief Justice said.

Mr Dick said Justice Dutney’s sudden passing would be a great loss to both the legal profession and the state.

“Justice Dutney had a deep understanding of the Queensland justice system, and was held in high esteem across the profession as both a judicial officer and advocate,” Mr Dick said.

“He was passionate about alternative dispute resolution and was well qualified to be the inaugural President of the new (QCAT).

“Justice Dutney demonstrated his commitment to the administration of justice in Queensland during his nine years on the bench, first as Central Court Judge in Rockhampton, and as an eminent commercial judge in Brisbane.

My signal recollection of Justice Peter Dutney comes — strangely enough — not from my time working with him, but from an earlier moment, when he first offered me the position as his pupil. I was on the way to do some judging at my alma mater for a mooting competition (I suspect the Jessup, but it may have been another) and he called me, offering the position. Of course I accepted; one does not string along a Supreme Court justice. He then asked me, in genuine bemusement, why I did not put the Miles Franklin Award on my curriculum vitae.

‘I find myself discriminated against if I do, Judge,’ was my response.
He snorted and said, ‘Well, more fool them.’

I have never forgotten that.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius suggested that there were three deaths. The first is when the body stops working. The second is when it is burnt up in a fine show for the relatives and friends (Marcus was Roman, and — suttee aside, there the cultures are very different — the Romans cremated like Hindus).

The final death is when the body’s name is spoken for the last time.

It will be a long time before Justice Peter Dutney’s name is spoken for the last time.


  1. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Well said – condolences.

  2. Paul Dalkie
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I was sad to read of the sudden and far too early death of Peter Dutney. He was my senior pupil master in the early 1990s. He had a great mind, and a wonderfully dry wit. His death is a loss to the bench and the legal profession.
    Paul F Dalkie

  3. Posted September 8, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Those of you from Rocky reading this (and there are a few of you) may want to listen to this interview with Rockhampton barrister Ross Lo Monaco, who was with Justice Dutney when he died (and who was also a keen cyclist). It’s from ABC Capricornia.

  4. mark dutney
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your kind remarks about my brother, Peter. He did tell me the story of your appointment and how successfully you had done the job.
    I am saddened by the untimely death of others, but with Peter, I am distraught with wishing he had not died.

  5. Posted September 8, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Was once a prosecution witness in his court. Don’t recall him all that well, as most of my attention was taken up by the defence barrister.

  6. Alen O'Hran
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Nicely put Helen.

    Justice Dutney was a legend… he truly was! One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t stay with him for longer. But if I did, then the others wouldn’t have the opportunity to work for someone as amazing as him.

    It goes without saying that Justice Dutney will be VERY missed! He was a true gentleman with world views and experiences. He was someone from whom you could always get an honest and unbiased advice on anything. Although he was not the ‘warm and fuzzy’ type, he definitely had his heart in the right place. His deep sense of commitment, social justice and endless compassion made him an extraordinary judge.

    All of the colleagues looked up to him. All of his associates respected him. I respected him more at times than my own parents. With each of his six associates, he was tough and had high expectations. Let me assure you that passing Dut’s School of Law as one of his Associates, was the toughest yet the best experiences I ever had.

    RIP Judge!!!

  7. andrew dutney
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings about my brother. He died doing something he loved, in country that he loved, but very far from the people he loved and who loved him. That’s what comforts – and hurts. Your comments have reinforced something I always admired about Peter. He was a Judge by profession but not judgemental as a person. It’s been wonderful to have a big brother like that.

  8. Posted September 9, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks to all of you for your lovely comments, and especially to the members of Justice Dutney’s family for dropping by. I can’t begin to imagine how you feel right now so all I can do is offer my condolences and direct you to Ross Lo Monaco’s fine interview on ABC radio (comment #4), as he was with him when he died.

    Alen: all true. We were very lucky — Bronwyn, you, Tom, Kate and me. A small but select grouping 😉

  9. pete m
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Very sad news and condolences to his family. As a lawyer who appeared before him, I was always glad to note he was sitting in Court and knew we’d not only get a fair hearing, but from someone who could zoom in on what lay at the heart of the matter. He was also well versed in the real world.

    He will be missed.

  10. Liz
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    RIP Peter – I will always remember our runs and our rides together. You will be missed by all who knew you. My deepest condolences to his family.

  11. Bronwyn Hartigan
    Posted September 15, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    The Justice Peter Dutney I knew was a tough task master. He expected the best from you and drove you to achieve it. Simply put, I would not be where I am today without his encouragement, support and advice. He was approachable to all young lawyers and made them feel important, giving them the confidence to aim higher. I felt a deep sense of loss when Justice Dutney died because he shaped me into the person I am today. He opened doors for me which I could never have opened for myself. I have taken full advantage of the opportnities he gave me, and coupled with hard work, hope to have a successful rewarding career at the Qld Bar for may years to come. He was my mentor. As his Associate I was committed to him 110%. I remained that way to the end. As I sat on Monday looking at his coffin before the other guests at his funeral arrvived I could not have foreseen that it would end like that in June of 2000 when he offerd me my Associateship after flipping a coin between me and another girl (according to him). I was glad I had the chance to say goodbye in this quiet and considered way. In that quiet time I made promises I shall not break . Promises which will give me courage when the going gets tough. I know that the memory of the faith he placed in me will see me through the late nights, long hours, difficult decisions and stressful moments that is life at the Bar. He may be gone but he will never be forgotten by me.
    Bronwyn Hartigan
    (Associate to the Honourable Justice Dutney – June 2000-June 2001, June 2002 – December 2004).

  12. Posted September 15, 2009 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Bronwyn, thank you for that beautiful comment, you have got me tearing up (which I don’t do easily, as friends of mine will attest). Many thanks to everyone else who has stopped by, too.

    I hope his funeral was a great send off. He deserved the best.

  13. Md. Badrul Ahsan
    Posted March 7, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    it was shocking! miss him a lot.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Skepticlawyer » Call my bluff? on April 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    […] to me experiencing quite extraordinary levels of harassment and discrimination, a little of which I outlined here. I was fortunate to win a scholarship to study at Oxford at about the same time as it become clear […]

  2. By Skepticlawyer » Weather With You on November 26, 2012 at 6:21 am

    […] left, because it catches something I saw day after day at the trial and never want to see again. My pupil-master is dead now, but this thing was so obvious that everyone noticed it, not just the Judge and his pupil who […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *