Swearing-in of his Honour Judge Michael McHugh to the NSW District Court

Dominic Toomey SC

His Honour, Michael Goffett McHugh SC, was swornin as a judge of the District Court of NSW on 7 October 2022, having practised at the Bar for some 23 years.

His Honour’s pedigree is well known. His mother, Jeannette, was a teacher by profession and the first woman from NSW to be elected to the federal parliament. She served as the minister for consumer affairs from 1992 to 1996. His Honour’s father, of course, was called to the NSW bar in 1961, was appointed queen’s counsel in 1973, joined the Court of Appeal bench in 1984, and was a judge of the High Court of Australia from 1989 until 2005. His Honour’s brother, Richard (himself senior counsel), and his sister, Giselle, are also accomplished lawyers.

As the Attorney-General, the Honourable Mark Speakman SC, observed at his Honour’s swearing-in, given the history, one might think his path to the law was both direct and preordained, but it was not quite so.

His Honour, the second eldest of his sibship, was born in 1962 in Newcastle, a year after his father had been called to the bar. Encouraged by the late Jack Smyth QC, his Honour’s father moved, with his fledgling family, to Sydney when the children were still very young, settling first in Bondi, then Bronte, and finally Tamarama. Unsurprisingly then, his Honour spent much of his youth at the beach, developing a keen interest in surfing – an interest that in his teenage years, it might be said, displaced his scholastic pursuits.

His Honour attended Bronte Public School and then Sydney Boys’ High School. Upon leaving school, he had many jobs, including as a barman, both in the UK and Sydney, as a day trader on the Sydney Futures Exchange and as a storeman and packer at the ABC. That job, incidentally, took his Honour back to the scene of his appearance, as a 10-year-old, in a television program called ‘Germaine Greer and the Fair Dinkum Male’. He did not play Germaine Greer!

His Honour later obtained work as a salesman, which included selling advertising space in the Yellow Pages. That ultimately led to his job with the law publishers, Butterworths, at a time when many of their products were transitioning to a digital format. That saw his Honour in chambers in Phillip St, and beyond, training barristers and solicitors in the use of the new digital platforms. Perhaps it was this further insight into life at the bar, coupled with his exposure to it through his father, which finally prompted his Honour to pursue the study of law while working full-time with a mortgage and a young family.

His Honour undertook the Bar Exams and Bar Course in 1999. We were in the same cohort, and quickly developed a friendship which endures to this day. He joined 16 Wardell Chambers, then led by the Honourable TEF Hughes AO KC. His Honour was attracted to the floor not only by the calibre of its membership, among whom was its present leader, John Agius SC, but by the broad range of areas practised by them. His ambition was to emulate those who regarded their art to be that of advocacy, unconfined by the subject matter or nature of the case.

That was an ambition that his Honour resoundingly achieved. He took to the bar as a duck to water and, to continue the metaphor, revelled in life on the pond. His practice ranged from common law to admiralty, defamation to crime, with much in between. He was equally comfortable before a jury, be it civil or criminal, as before an appellate court. He counts as one of his most memorable experiences at the bar being led in the High Court in ICM Agriculture Pty limited v The Commonwealth [2009] HCA 51 by the Honourable Robert Ellicott AC QC, then the former attorney-general and former Solicitor General of the Commonwealth, and formerly a judge of the Federal Court of Australia. His Honour has often regaled me with stories of that case, which concerned the Commonwealth’s power to make laws with respect to the acquisition of property on just terms, pursuant to section 51(xxxi) of the Constitution. It is fair to say that those stories have focussed on the ‘journey’, rather than the outcome, but that is simply a reflection of his Honour’s love not only of his experience in that case, but of practice at the bar more generally.

During his years at the bar his Honour earned the respect and affection of his peers, serving for many years as a bar councillor – often receiving close to the highest number of votes in Bar Council elections, even before taking silk – and ultimately, of course, rising to the office of president. His work for the Bar Association in all his years as a councillor, particularly those served on the executive, is immeasurable.

His Honour takes with him to the bench a vast breadth of experience, both in the law and in life. He also takes with him his commitment to service, which I have no doubt he will continue to demonstrate in his new role. We wish him well. BN

Dominic Toomey SC

Jack Shand Chambers