Brendan Murphy KC signed the Bar Roll in 1971, and took silk in 1999.
Many police, prosecutors, and judicial officers will know him, or at least know of his fearsome reputation, from the 51 years that followed his signing the Bar Roll.
I’m one of those who knew him and his reputation. I believe I’m the only one presently at the Bar (now that my mentor has left for higher office) who can lay claim to having been both cross-examined by Brendan, and who worked with him. I can say with all sincerity I absolutely far preferred the latter: the former was just simply terrifying. And he did it to me not once but twice, because the case went on appeal!
My opportunity to work with Murph was in the final age of his career, but probably the pinnacle of his time at the Bar was around the 1980s when he used to work a lot with Joe Gullaci and Graeme Hicks (both of whom became judges of the County Court), often defending police officers and fighting fiercely-contested trials, and it was then he really earned his reputation.
Later, he moved into drink-driving cases, and would regularly clash with police prosecutors in the Magistrates’ Court and (so rumour has it), even the occasional judicial officer.
In fact, there was no rumour about it: it was an absolute fact that Murph was fearless in acting for his clients, and he never took a backward step no matter what any Bench might say to him or about him. It was frankly inspiring and ever-so-slightly intimidating to see him in full flight, and an example to the rest of us when we might falter and doubt our clients’ cases.
Two other things made him special. The first was his innate knowledge of human nature and cunning. Most of us remember Irving Younger’s Ten Commandments of Cross Examination and his oft-quoted direction to never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. (Although, to be fair to Younger, he qualified his commandments as rules for new advocates to avoid disaster, but mere guidelines to be abandoned when circumstances required for experienced advocates.) Well, Murph regularly ignored that “commandment”, and the number of cases where he ferreted out a winning point from some question that appeared innocuous at best or damn foolhardy at worst, was just incredible.
And the second of those other things that made him special was his outrageous sense of humour. Although he worked hard (he was routinely at his Chambers at 6.00 AM) and believed fervently in meticulous preparation (something he impressed upon all his juniors), he always managed to make it fun. He never took himself too seriously, and enjoyed poking fun at anyone who did. In many a conference he would express himself in an earthy and direct way that shocked many clients who had a preconceived notion of what a Silk was like, and he wasn’t beyond a wry practical joke in Court. (I’ll tell only one example here: in a case in the Magistrates’ Court with a junior taller than he — which was, if I’m honest, most of them — the junior duly reported that he could see that the magistrate was not taking notes of much of the proceeding. The magistrate had been challenging Murph at points in the case, so at a later stage when things were fairly uneventful, Murph professed to not have made a note of some aspect of the evidence, and asked the magistrate to review her or his notes on that point to assist. After looking hurriedly through the papers on the bench before them, the magistrate “found” the relevant note and declared, “No Mr Murphy, your recollection is quite correct. Please continue.” And Murph was left alone apparently for the remainder of the hearing!)
There are so many more stories about Murph, and each of us who knew him will have our own to share. A handful of them were shared earlier this year by Geoffrey Steward when he spoke at the unveiling of a portrait of Mr Murphy that was commissioned by the Bar, so I’ll share that with you below as well as Murph’s response and his brief reflection on 50-odd years at Bar.
Brendan Murphy KC died 26 December 2022, aged 80. He finished 2022 as he started: still a member of Division A, Part 1 — Victorian Practising Counsel; still a much-admired colleague; and still a dear friend.