IT was calm, it was reasonable, it hit the mark and it resonated.
In his final words from the Bench on Thursday retiring NSW Supreme Court Justice Peter McClellan – who as chair of the child sexual abuse royal commission spoke of victims facing “almost insurmountable barriers” in the criminal justice system – had some words of advice for his judicial colleagues.
The formal retirement ceremony of a judge was part of a Supreme Court tradition, he said to a filled gallery in the Banco Court of the Sydney court complex.
“Respect for tradition is important for the court and fundamental to the common law,” he said.
“Nevertheless, our legal history is testament to the capacity of the common law to evolve. Without stability the common law would lack legitimacy but without the capacity to evolve the legitimacy would itself be lost.”
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made more than 80 recommendations to reform the criminal justice system after a landmark five-year inquiry Justice McClellan described as challenging, at times confronting and the most significant work of his professional life.
Sexual abuse survivor members of the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) – known to the royal commission as Clannies – broke with Supreme Court tradition by cheering within the Banco Court as senior members of the court, the NSW Bar Association and NSW Law Society spoke of Justice McClellan’s career and legacy.
Bar Association senior member Tim Game, SC, said he was one of many who initially doubted whether the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was necessary.
But it had been “a cathartic experience for the whole community” that was made possible to a considerable degree by Justice McClellan’s leadership, Mr Game said.
NSW Law Society president Doug Humphreys said Justice McClellan’s “precocious” appearance before the High Court at the age of 28 was an indication of his future career, with the royal commission as his most outstanding achievement.
While some of the more than 400 recommendations delivered in the final royal commission report in December – and yet to be responded to by governments, churches and other institutions – would be very difficult and would “no doubt spark intense debate”, that debate was necessary, Mr Humphreys said.
The court heard of Justice McClellan’s love of golf, playing guitar, Simon and Garfunkel music and family.
Justice McClellan said that while in law school he would never have imagined the opportunities before him, and as a barrister he did not anticipate the opportunities available when he became a judge.
“I assumed I would generally sit as others had done, in the same court room for the rest of my professional life. As it has happened and as you have heard, the reality has been significantly different,” he said.
Outside the court CLAN members in the distinctive royal blue t-shirts that became a feature of the royal commission’s more than 50 public hearings across Australia, stood in tribute to the man who gave them a voice and held signs with the simple message: “Thank you, Justice McClellan”.