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Advocate for the underdog won't be swayed by media frenzy

Date

Rachel Olding

"It is critical to act on principle and rule of law": Justice Peter Hammill.

"It is critical to act on principle and rule of law": Justice Peter Hammill. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

EXCLUSIVE

The state's newest Supreme Court judge, Peter Hammill, SC, has sent a clear warning that he will not be swayed by "ill-defined" public and media pressure for tougher sentences, saying he would champion an independent judicial system "in a time of criminal trial and sentencing by way of media frenzy".

As he was sworn in to the bench on Tuesday, the renowned criminal barrister described his appointment a "courageous choice by the government".

The Sydney silk has been described variously as a ferocious attack dog, feisty advocate, sharply dressed savoir faire, wine lover, seasoned traveller and baseball tragic. One female judge summed up the plethora of descriptions by calling him "the thinking woman's crumpet".

Justice Hammill's comments on the media frenzy for tougher sentencing come after debate has raged in recent months over mandatory minimum sentences for alcohol-related assaults and child-sex offences. 

Quoting a 1991 murder judgment by Justice David Hunt, Justice Hammill said a prisoner should be given the chance to work his way through to a better future rather than being "flung on to the human scrap heap of society by an uncaring criminal justice system simply as a warning and an example to others".

"It is critical to act on principle and rule of law rather than ill-defined perception of what the public defines to be an appropriate outcome," he said.

The Jannali-born 51-year-old is not one for subtlety, said long-time friend Phillip Boulten, SC, who formed Forbes Chambers with Justice Hammill in 1986.

He has always been "alarmingly direct with witnesses and opponents and judges", leaving few wondering what he was thinking, Mr Boulten said.

The ability to "pretty much say anything out loud" came from his father, Justice Hammill said. The sense of justice and fairness came from his mother.

But he hopes to start life on the bench as a "blank canvas open to persuasion", he said as he packed up his belongings at Forbes Chambers this week.

After 26 years defending the guilty and the innocent, it is the trials with no winners that have stuck with him.

When he first met mentally ill murder accused Anthony Waterlow in a psychiatric prison, he went back to his black Mercedes bearing "RED SOX" plates and sat for what felt like an eternity.

The deaths of eastern suburbs art curator Nicholas Waterlow, 68, and daughter Chloe Heuston, 36, at the hands of Anthony touched a rare chord.

"I won't say I was traumatised but I was very affected by the experience and the realisation of just how tragic this was from every possible perspective."

If his unhealthy obsession with the perennially underachieving Boston Red Sox reveals anything, it's that he connects with the underdog.

His early work defending Aboriginals in western NSW – "putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds”, as he described it – is among his most valued.

His unrelenting representation for the family of Tasered Brazilian student Roberto Laudisio Curti forged a rare and lasting bond with Mr Curti's family, particularly his sister Ana Luisa Laudisio de Lucca, who attended Tuesday's ceremony.

"I clicked with Peter and I knew he was the right person to represent my family," Ms Laudisio de Lucca said. "He's a very strategic thinker and an ethical person."

Since watching Rumpole of the Bailey and being told by a debating teacher at Jannali Boys High that he had a "style suited to the bar", he aspired to become a criminal barrister. But trading the bar for the bench was not on his radar.

For starters, the long Chinese lunches would be gone – although they had largely following a recent uptake of morning swimming, personal training sessions and cycling, which left him with a broken arm at Tuesday's ceremony.

"I don't feel as if I'm burnt out as an advocate," he said. "But I was concerned that I might well reach that stage in five years and then think that I should have taken this opportunity."

Mr Boulten said it was indeed a "very, very courageous decision".

"[He will be] a courageous judge, fiercely independent and alive to justice," he said.

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