Barrister Jack Pappas hates to lose

Barrister Jack Pappas hates to lose

“Some have got the speed and the right combinations, but if you can't take the punches, it don't mean a thing.”

When an American songwriter Warren Zevon penned the 1987 lyrics about the American boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, he wouldn’t have been thinking about their future effects on the life and work of a Canberra barrister.

But for Jack Pappas, the line is the best possible motto for the type of work he does.

Barrister Jack Pappas in his Canberra chambers.

Barrister Jack Pappas in his Canberra chambers. Credit:Elesa Kurtz

In fact, he says, boxing is a metaphor both for life and for the legal profession, which should come as no surprise if you’ve ever spotted Pappas shadow-boxing to himself as he walks towards a courtroom, mid-trial.


In a career spanning 40 years, Pappas has become known in the legal profession for his exacting approach to preparing a case - lazy solicitors need not bother briefing him - and for his tough cross-examination.

Just recently, he says, he arrived early to a case in the Supreme Court, and as he mingled outside the courtroom among police and witnesses, a police officer motioned to the four buckets lined up to catch the rain leaking through the roof during a storm.

“These are for witnesses to vomit in after Mr Pappas has cross-examined them,” the officer said, much to Pappas’ amusement.

He’s best-known for the many high-profile murder cases he’s worked on, chief among them representing Anu Singh and former Australian Federal Police officer John Conway.

Canberra law student Singh was found guilty of manslaughter but not guilty of murder after giving her boyfriend a fatal heroin overdose in 1997, while Conway was sentenced to 24 years prison after he paid a pair of hit men to murder his wife, also in 1997.

He also represented one of Canberra infamous Massey clan - Rebecca, convicted of murdering Elizabeth Booshand at the Charnwood shops in 2008.

But back to the motto. As far as Pappas is concerned, he will often find himself dealing with opponents who are smarter and better than him - it’s all part of the human condition.

“If you think otherwise, you're a fool, and very often they're much smarter,” he says.

“But it's about the combinations, and a little bit of cunning and understanding of life and people that book learning just never gives you.”

Pappas himself is the first to admit that he’s not a natural “book learner” - his legal knowledge and acumen has been hard-won through hard work and diligence, and has never come naturally.

Growing up in Orange in the 1950s and 60s, the son of a Greek fruit shop owner, most around him never thought he would amount to anything.

“I grew up in what was probably then regarded and still would be regarded as the wrong side of the railway tracks in East Orange,” he said.

“I wouldn't have had a school shirt that had all the buttons on it at any stage of my schooling, because I was constantly in schoolyard scraps and fights of one sort or another. I grew up in tough times.”

Barrister Jack Pappas as a young boy boxer.

Barrister Jack Pappas as a young boy boxer.

His father had migrated to Australia after the First World War, after his large family, from the town of Akrata, banded together to raise enough money to send him off for a better life.

“He worked in the fruit markets in Sydney, in Haymarket, and lived in a loft above a fruit stall,” Pappas says.

“He lived on rejected fruit for the first six months. It was an incredibly hard time. He told the story more than once that he never even had the cost of a postage stamp to let his parents and his family know that he'd arrived.”

His father eventually opened his own fruit shop in Orange and also, at one stage, launched the “largest SP bookmaking operation west of the Blue Mountains”.

By then, he had married one of his Australian staff members, and young Jack was born. He would be the couple’s only child, and started working for his father at a young age.

“I became very good at spotting a policeman at 100 metres,” he said.

It was as a teenager that he took up boxing, for which he had a natural flair. It also kept him off the streets, and gave him the drive to finish school and get into the ANU to study law.

“I was good at the humanities, effectively, at high school, I was a good student, I worked hard,” he said.

“I always have worked hard, but I don't think study comes naturally to me, I'm certainly not gifted like some of the kids I see coming out of university these days. And I still work hard. If I pick up a new matter, I go back to the basics, I just have to. It means long hours and lot of preparation, but without that, you can't win court cases.”

And if there’s one thing Pappas can’t stand, it’s losing a case.

After working his way through law school in a motley range of jobs - driving oil tankers, security at the legendary Civic nightclub the Private Bin - he began his career with a local law firm.

“I started out doing commercial law, and they decided they wanted to move into criminal law, they'd done none at that stage, and so they effectively said, ‘You're the boy’,” he says.

“I've never stopped being busy from the day I started in practice.”

After making partner at the firm that hired him, he struck out alone and set up Pappas J. - Attorney, where he intended to work alone with only a personal assistant. Within two years, he says, he had 18 staff.

Today, Pappas acts for a variety of clients, often in insurance and commercial matters, but he is known for having run countless high-profile criminal cases. And although he admits this can be “bad for business”, it’s the big criminal cases that excite him the most.

“I've got to say, there's nothing like running a murder,” he says.

"And it's an awful, awful thing to say, but I've been most fortunate, I've had so many murders in my career. And some of them annoyingly stand out, like Anu Singh. I'm sick to death of it, sick of hearing about it, and I never thought it was a particularly interesting case to start with.

“The book by Helen Garner was a good read, a good book, but I could never see the real interest in that. I've done other murder cases which are absolutely fascinating by comparison.”

At the scene of an alleged stabbing at Charnwood Shops, prosecuter John Lundy, defence barrister Jack Pappas and Justice Malcolm Gray survey the scene before the jury arrived by bus to inspect the scene.

At the scene of an alleged stabbing at Charnwood Shops, prosecuter John Lundy, defence barrister Jack Pappas and Justice Malcolm Gray survey the scene before the jury arrived by bus to inspect the scene. Credit:Gary Schafer

Even his very first murder case as a solicitor, representing a woman who shot her husband with his own shotgun, gets him more excited than Singh.

“He was a terrible fellow who mistreated her very badly, and I ran a battered wife's defence in the Supreme Court at Goulburn,” he says.

He also cites several Queensland cases, where he lived for 10 years with his wife - “the Beautiful Joanna” - and two step-children, as standouts in a career full of them.

Before moving north, he set up and ran Empire Chambers, a co-op with 17 barristers that he eventually folded. Nowadays, Empire Chambers is a one-man show, run out of a swank, inner-city apartment with sweeping views of the morphing Canberra skyline.

In contrast to the modern surrounds, Pappas sits with his back to the view at a large, mahogany desk, surrounded by shelves filled with photographs and knick-knacks from his long career.

He says his biggest career regret is failing to get John Conway acquitted - he thought he had the jury on-side - but he has an unwavering respect for the jury process.

“Juries are a great guard against a number of things. Firstly, overzealous police and poor police investigative practices, and secondly, overbearing judges who think they know the answer to everything under the sun,” he says.

And speaking of juries, Pappas also has the dubious honour of being the only ACT lawyer to have sacked David Eastman - recently acquitted of the 1989 murder of Colin Winchester - rather than the other way around.

He appeared for Eastman during the first coronial inquest, long before his client was eventually jailed for almost 20 years, and says he became unbearable to deal with very quickly.

“He was a very difficult client to deal with.

"But I've spoken to him in recent days and he's a much more mellow person these days, and he and I have an uneasy truce, I suppose.”

He says this is often the case with former clients, be they murderers, insurance frauds or bikies.

“I've acted for some really horrendous people, there's just no doubt about that, but I can only think of probably one out of all those people in whom I couldn't identify a number of really good traits,” he says.

“I'm happy to do their work. Someone's got to do it, and I take great pride in the fact that if you have to battle hard to get someone convicted, then they've had a fair trial.”

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

Most Viewed in National