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.