Michael John Finnane KC RFD (1943—2023)

Edmund Finnane

Michael Finnane KC, former judge of the District Court of New South Wales and of the Dust Diseases Tribunal of New South Wales, died on 29 March 2023.

Michael is still remembered by many as the judge who presided over a series of trials relating to gang rapes that had occurred in August 2000. When Michael sentenced the gang leader, Bilal Skaf, to 55 years imprisonment, with a 40-year nonparole period, there was a storm of publicity. To Michael’s surprise, his photograph and biographical details were included in many newspaper articles covering this sentence, as well as the sentences given to the other offenders. He subsequently received letters from across Australia and overseas congratulating him on his sentences. One such letter enclosed a petition in his favour with 121 signatures. Another letter was from a union delegate at a container terminal in New Zealand, and recorded that Michael had secured 100% support from that terminal’s workforce. Many in the legal profession were uneasy at the idea of a judge being lauded by the public, and some thought the sentences excessive. Michael did not think the sentences excessive, but he, too, was uneasy about the attention, which he had never sought and struggled to understand. After all, he had simply sentenced some offenders, as a presiding judge is required to do following a conviction and had, in doing so, applied the law as he understood it.

The 55-year sentence was successfully appealed, so that Skaf ultimately served (and still serves) a shorter sentence imposed by the Court of Criminal Appeal rather than Judge Finnane. Notwithstanding this detail, Michael would, for the rest of his life, be approached quite regularly by people from all walks of life, who wanted to congratulate him for sentencing Skaf to 55 years.

Michael John Finnane was born on 22 February 1943 to Jack and Jean Finnane, the first of eight children. Jack served in World War II as an army officer in the Pacific, and at the other end of his career, would find himself managing Michael’s chambers for some 20 years.

Michael completed his leaving certificate at Marist Brothers Darlinghurst, after which he commenced his studies for a Bachelor of Laws at Sydney University.

Two years into law school, Michael decided that he should become a Jesuit priest. He took a break from studies and attended the Jesuit novitiate in Melbourne. He lasted 18 months. The discipline involved in the Jesuit lifestyle was not for him, although his time with the Jesuits remained a strong influence in his life.

He returned to Sydney to finish his law degree. During this period, Michael worked as an articled clerk with the Justice Department. He enjoyed this work, which gave him exposure to the development of policies affecting the law, as well as the administration of the court system. Michael was occasionally tasked with dealing with people who thought that the purpose of the Department of Justice was to reverse injustices that they believed they had experienced. Examples given in Michael’s book, The Pursuit of Justice (published in 2018), include a woman who sought recognition as both the illegitimate daughter of Pope John and the former mistress of the American billionaire, J P Morgan. Another claimed to be the true Queen of England. Michael would promise to have the Minister look into the matter and to write the appropriate letters.

Michael finished his law degree in 1968. During his studies Michael had met Jill, and they were married in January 1969. They celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their marriage in 2019 with family and friends.

Michael was admitted to the bar in February 1969. He developed a strong and varied junior practice. In 1978, he was appointed as an Inspector into the affairs of the Sinclair Pastoral Company Pty Ltd and associated companies: the ‘Sinclair Inquiry’’. Ian Sinclair was the Federal Minister for Primary Industry. The inquiry attracted a lot of media attention. When Michael’s report was set to be tabled in the New South Wales Parliament, he took the family on an unscheduled holiday to a secret location. It was just as well – on Michael’s return, he was told that journalists and photographers had been camped outside the family home and had even climbed over the neighbours’ fences into his backyard. Michael’s youngest son was a baby at the time.

Michael was appointed as Queen’s Counsel in 1982 at the age of 39.

During his career at the bar Michael practised in fields as diverse as crime, divorce (now called family law), tenancy, personal injuries, arson, fraud, equity, coronial inquiries, company law, insolvency, partnership and other commercial disputes, workers compensation, intellectual property, and administrative law.

Michael was also involved in many Royal Commissions and Inquiries in the 1980s and 1990s. They included the ‘Ananda Marga Inquiry’ relating to convictions of Messrs Alister, Anderson, and Dunn for conspiracy to murder, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, an ICAC inquiry concerning the Corrective Services Department, the Inquiry into the conviction of Andrew Kalajzich, the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service, and the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Glenbrook train crash.

Michael joined the Australian Army Legal Corps in 1973. He retired as a Colonel in 1998, having appeared at numerous courts martial and boards of inquiry and acted as a judge advocate.

During Michael’s career as a barrister he had some brief stints as an acting judge in both the District Court and in the Supreme Court, although he never expressed any interest in a permanent appointment. He enjoyed his work as a barrister too much. But to the surprise of many in his family, he did accept an appointment as a judge of the District Court, for which he was sworn in on 23 October 2000.

As a judge of the District Court, Michael heard both civil and criminal matters, although the majority of his time was spent in crime. The criminal cases were varied, but a significant number involved charges of serious sexual offences including offences against children. After years of these cases Michael needed a change, and so he welcomed the opportunity that arose in 2012, to be appointed as a judge of the Dust Diseases Tribunal.

Michael retired as a Judge of the District Court and of the Dust Diseases Tribunal at the then mandatory retirement age of 72 on February 22, 2015.

Michael returned to the bar immediately upon his retirement, and shortly thereafter purchased a room on 2 Wentworth. Always looking for new challenges, Michael obtained the necessary qualification to appear in migration matters and appeared in a number of cases in that area, including in the High Court. Much of his migration work was for asylum seekers. As he had done previously Michael practised in a range of cases in other areas, civil and criminal. In his last few years Michael was planning to retire. Each year as he received his practising certificate, this was going to be his final year. But as the practice year came to an end there would be some residual work to be done, such that the practising certificate had to be renewed. He really did enjoy being at the bar, and it is fitting in a way that he had a current practising certificate at the time of his death.

During this post-judicial period, Michael wrote his book, The Pursuit of Justice. One of the things that comes through clearly from the book is that Michael admired great advocacy. He devoted a chapter to the topic. One of his suggestions was to make a case as interesting as possible. Another was to make sure to explain the technical information in expert reports. Another was not to insult the judge – although the book includes an anecdote about the late Clive Evatt QC doing just that.

Michael contributed to the educational programs of the NSW Bar on many occasions over the years. He was a firm upholder of the open-door policy, and the family has received numerous notes in the last couple of months from colleagues young and old, many of whom were appreciative of the assistance that he gave them. Michael did a considerable amount of work for no payment. During his second period at the bar he was a regular volunteer at the Toongabbie Legal Centre, where he would spend entire Saturdays assisting people with their legal problems.

Michael made significant contributions to the community outside of the law. He made contributions in many areas, but just two examples will be given.

Michael devoted a great deal of his time over many decades to a not-for-profit company called Tradewinds Tea and Coffee, that helps tea and coffee growers in countries like Sri Lanka and East Timor. This organisation was one of the initiatives that led to the modern movement known as ‘Fair Trade’.

Michael was a friend of Mum Shirl, who devoted her life to helping Aboriginal people in need. He assisted her in these endeavours financially and provided legal assistance without payment to a number of people at Mum Shirl’s request. For several years, the Finnane family would host Mum Shirl and the children in her care at an annual Christmas party. He assisted Aboriginal people and causes in many other ways.

Michael had eclectic interests and he pursued them in his own eccentric way. He was interested in Latin, and he gained, in his later years, a Master of Arts in classics. His thesis was on the advocacy of Cicero. On a visit to Italy a few years ago, he attended the Forum in Rome and recited, for whichever tourists happened to be there, Cicero’s address on Clodia, in both English and Latin.

From the time of the Sinclair inquiry his main mode of transport was the bicycle. During the Sinclair inquiry, newspaper stories of the inquiry would be accompanied by a photograph of Michael, taken as he arrived in Phillip Street with his bicycle, wearing old clothes and appearing dishevelled in general. Decades later, in the immediate aftermath of the gang rape trials, the bicycle was replaced briefly with secure, chauffer-driven cars arranged by the Sheriff. But Michael soon returned to the bicycle. As Michael explained in his book, ‘My view was that no-one would think an elderly man in lycra on a bicycle was me. My bicycle gave me anonymity’. So Michael found his anonymity by riding a bicycle, clad in his multi-coloured 1970s-era cycling outfit, bushy grey beard, lights flashing (on bicycle and helmet), spikes protruding from helmet to deter magpies. He was probably right to think that no-one would pick him as a judge, so attired, but if he thought that he somehow blended in with everyone else, he was mistaken. In more recent years he would arrive in Phillip Street on a fold-up bicycle with small wheels. It was a comical sight.

Michael also liked to keep hens, although he was not so good at selecting them. On more than one occasion he bought a pullet that matured into a rooster, and indeed he once bought a flock of prize-winning roosters at the Royal Easter Show. The breeder involved may have been culpable by his silence.

Michael was a diehard Sydney Swans supporter. He attended all home games and travelled to Melbourne when the Swans played in grand finals.

Michael was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather. He is survived by his wife Jill, four children, three grandchildren, a hen (an actual hen) and a rabbit. BN

Edmund Finnane

13 Wentworth Chambers