Sunday 28th May, 2006

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Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law was that there was one law for the ordinary citizens and general public and that there was another law for Murphy and his friends. A private select network that was entitled to receive favours and little bendings, accommodations and variations of the law in their favour, simply because they were friends of Murphy and benefited from Murphy’s Law. This is the true story of Mr Justice Lionel Murphy, a former parliamentarian and federal Attorney-General of the then-ruling Australian Labour Party. He had been appointed to the highest court in the land in Australia and was particularly popular in New South Wales and its capital Sydney.

He was riding high on the hog and had many rich and powerful friends, who from time to time needed rich and powerful favours in respect of matters before the Courts and under Murphy’s Law, this was often achieved by a whisper in the right ear at the right time and the matter would be taken care of discreetly and efficiently, and everyone would be happy and the public would be none the wiser. This was of course until Murphy whispered into the wrong ear.

In this world of the old boy network where it is almost implicitly accepted as a given that, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” and neither of us will tell and all will be well, it is often difficult to buck such strong and powerful traditions, and almost impossible to stand up against such systems of institutionalised glad-handing and power-brokering on behalf of the rich, famous or popular. It often takes a special kind of character with nerves of steel and immense strength of conviction to withstand the torrent of abuse and public vilification that often comes with standing up for what is right and what is truth.

It’s painful to be relentlessly attacked in newspaper and television headlines by a State Premier and a famous Judge of the highest Court in the land, even when you know the truth is on your side and most men would crumble under the weight of that pressure. But not all, for sometimes history throws up an individual or two, who against all odds, stand their ground for what is truth and right, and who in the face of the sheer madness and insanity of public opinion and public pressure, quietly stand firm, unyielding and unbending and refusing to budge from a stand of principle and integrity.

Enter one such man in the form of Clarence (Clarrie) Briese who was then the Chief Magistrate of New South Wales in the early 1980s and who would not have expected to be in such a legal/ethical storm given his mild manner and simple country-boy upbringing.

But maybe, it is that very honesty and simplicity of his upbringing, which placed him at the centre of the maelstrom which was about to descend upon his life. He held simple honest virtues and always felt that truth matters, and no-one, regardless of status, should be able to get away with corrupting and distorting the law.

The so-called ‘Murphy affair’ exploded in the early 1980s across Australia, but especially in Sydney, capital of its most populous state, New South Wales. At that time, there was a widespread political corruption rampant at very high levels, including the police and judiciary and on the sworn evidence given by Clarrie Briese, it seemed clear that the corruption had reached to the highest court. In a 1982 phone call to Briese, Mr Justice Murphy had made oblique hints that Briese should arrange the “fixing” of a court case which was against a Sydney lawyer, Morgan Ryan, whom Murphy referred to as “my little mate.”  

There were also other veiled and oblique hints and references given to Clarrie all in an attempt for him to fix this and other cases, but Clarrie still did not want to fully believe the worst about the Honourable Justice Lionel Murphy. Not, at least, until The Age newspaper published extracts from a series of phone conversations involving Murphy and other notables.  

Reading the full transcript, Clarrie said, ‘It was clear to me that there was in fact a substantial network of corruption at work, which crystallised my previous fears and unease.’ He then came forward with his testimony of what had taken place. But whistle-blowing has its price—a relentless and unprecedented barrage of public attacks on Clarrie’s character from influential quarters.

But his opponents had underestimated their church-going nemesis. Once set on his path, Clarrie was determined to stand firm regarding what he knew had been said to him. His reputation for unbending, unselfish integrity made it hard for anyone to think of a motive for him risking everything in this way. Some suggested it was political bias against Murphy’s Labour Party, but, he says, ‘I was well known for sympathy to the Labour side at the time.’

Clarrie Briese’s fellow magistrates rose in public support for his integrity. Judges and law societies publicly deplored the notion that there might be retribution against him for giving evidence. Clarrie was actually already known to support measures he believed would help to reduce corruption in the judiciary.

One of these was ensuring that the State’s magistrates should be independent of government, like judges of higher courts already were. He had also proposed they be accountable to an independent commission. The media spotlight slowly begin to highlight the errors and failings of Clarrie’s attackers.

Despite assembling one of the finest legal defence teams in the history of Australia, Mr Justice Lionel Murphy was convicted and sentenced to prison in 1985, but died before having to face any formal consequences of his actions. Doubtless not all the corrupt players were made to face justice but everyone agrees that the whole affair led to massive and beneficial reforms of law and government in New South Wales and in Australia generally. Clarrie Briese emerged with a deserved reputation as a corruption fighter of unbending integrity. In 2002 he was awarded one of his country’s highest civic honours, Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

Asked if corruption is no longer a problem in NSW, Clarrie says, ‘Far from it. But the reforms mean we have better ways of identifying it and dealing with it. We have to be vigilant; where people from fallen mankind are given power and authority, corruption is an ever-present possibility.’

We are a fledgling nation here in T&T and it is really up to us at this stage to decide what kind of society we want to fashion and mould for our future generations. Instead of viewing it as a purely negative thing, the present upheavals between the State and the Judiciary can be seen as growth pains as we seek to form and fashion a better system of Jurisprudence and the Rule of Law.

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