Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Tribute To Bill Hosking QC

Alister with Bill Hosking

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS ( Ku-ring-gai ) ( 12:11 :49 ): I speak about one of the many remarkable citizens of Ku-ring-gai. Having lost his beloved wife, Judith, 4½ years ago, Bill Hosking, QC, now lives a quiet life in a leafy street in Pymble. I strongly suspect that many of his neighbours know little about his professional career, which is as interesting as some of the stories recounted in a recently published book, Justice Denied, that Bill has written with John Suter Linton.

As I have indicated, Bill ultimately became a Queen's Counsel but his path to a senior position within the legal profession was not a conventional one. Born in Broken Hill, he initially became a clerk in the petty sessions branch of the Department of the Attorney General and Justice in 1954 and served in what he estimates to be approximately 70 courthouses across New South Wales. However, at the age of 23 Bill changed course when Jack Mannix, the then Australian Labor Party [ALP] member for Liverpool and Minister for Justice, appointed him as his acting private secretary. That was in 1961. Four years later the new Minister for Justice, the Liberal Party's John Maddison, retained Bill on his staff. Incidentally, Maddison was then the member for Hornsby but in 1973 he became the first member for Ku-ring-gai, the electorate that I proudly represent in this House.

Bill told me that in those days members of Parliament did not have electorate offices and saw constituents in temporary premises in the electorate. Bill went on to become assistant private secretary to the Liberal Premier of New South Wales but within months the then Assistant Minister for Education and soon to be Minister for Mines, Wal Fife, who was then the State member for Wagga Wagga, had taken him on as his private secretary. Bill speaks very highly of all the politicians whom he was proud to serve and of their positive influence on him.

He was nevertheless called to the bar in 1968, commenced private practice in 1970, became a public defender in 1973 and was appointed Queen's Counsel and Deputy Senior Public Defender in 1980. Between 1987 and 2000 he was a judge of the District Court. It is episodes from his time as a barrister and public defender that fill the pages of Justice Denied. However, the book is neither a sensationalist account of some of the more famous criminal trials of the past 40 years nor an exercise in self-promotion by its author. Apart from the fact that Bill has chosen to write not only about his skilful and even law-changing victories in the courtroom but also about his devastating defeats, throughout he adopts the same self-deprecating attitude that I have witnessed for myself when I have had the opportunity to talk to him.

I first spoke to Bill after I became his local member and he wrote a letter to me to ask for my assistance in respect of some public documents he was having trouble accessing for his book. With the assistance of the member for Vaucluse and former Attorney General, I was happy to gain that access. Some of the cases to which Bill devotes a chapter in the book will be well known to even a casual observer of the criminal justice system in New South Wales. However, whether the subject matter is "Toecutter" Jimmy Driscoll, the Anita Cobby trial, Angelo Maric, Carl Synnerdahl or Anderson, Alister and Dunn, the message is essentially the same: No matter how evil the person facing charges may seem or how heinous the crime may be, the accused is entitled to a fair trial.

It is readily apparent from Bill's personal experience that that did not always happen, that defendants were convicted against the weight of evidence and that serious miscarriages of justice occurred. In that regard the book is a timely reminder to us all that the presumption of innocence is a fundamental right of every person and that any attempts to qualify it or in any way water it down when drafting legislation should be viewed with great circumspection and almost invariably rejected. It reveals that Bill was at the forefront of those lawyers who exposed the deficiencies of the legal system: the admission of the unsigned statement of confession, the danger of police verbals and the questionable reliance on forensic evidence. In no small measure, the work that he did led to the protections that we now enjoy under both Commonwealth and State laws.

That said, the book is also an extraordinarily entertaining read, as much due to the style in which it is written as its content. For those who have met Bill, that again is unsurprising. He has a keen, even cheeky, sense of humour. In a recent article in Justinian, he was asked what he would be if he were a foodstuff. He answered:

Absolutely not fish, fowl or animal. The life of all food items is limited and when you consider the ultimate destination, distinctly unexciting. I would select an apple.

I highly recommend chapter 15 of the book, titled "Never a Dull Moment". It contains a series of short recollections that cannot fail to raise a smile, including the story of a Mercedes driver from Kurri Kurri. Even today, Bill is urging the restoration of remissions on sentences and the right of an accused to make a statement from the dock. I may not agree with all his ideas but I salute the work of Bill Hosking, QC, and wholeheartedly endorse his call that we must never fail to be vigilant in protecting the rights of individuals.