The Hon Robert Leslie Hunter KC 1930—2023

Barrister, King’s Counsel, Judge of the Supreme Court NSW, Arbitrator

The Honourable Robert Leslie ‘Bob’ Hunter KC died on 12 July 2023 at the age of 92. He was a leading Silk at the Sydney Bar, a former Judge of the NSW Supreme Court and a celebrated arbitrator. Hunter KC was a much loved, learned and urbane man.

Hunter KC was the son of a tailor, and his parents lived through the Great Depression. His early education was with the Christian Brothers where he was imbued with the Catholic faith. By all accounts, his schooling encouraged and fashioned his intellect and made him a kindly and respectful man. Hunter KC attended Waverley College where he was in good company, within some years of the late John McLaughlin, as well as his good friend Paul Flannery QC who became a barrister and later a District Court Judge. He obtained a Commonwealth Scholarship and attended Sydney Law School, graduating in 1955 with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws with Honours.

Hunter KC took articles at Carroll & O’Dea under the master solicitor Mr Cecil O’Dea, and then practised at Minter Simpson & Co. At Minter Simpson & Co he was regarded as a ‘clue boy’, the moniker for the few young men in that firm who had a clue about the law. This was evidenced in part by their demonstrable capacity to write letters and correspond with other lawyers regarding specific aspects of the law.

Hunter KC was a keen sportsman as a young man. He played as a fullback in the Sydney University Football Club, also playing for the Eastern Suburbs. Earlier on, he was a member of the Associated Schools Rugby Team and also enjoyed playing competition cricket.

Hunter KC was a solicitor between 1955 and 1958. In 1959 he was admitted to the Bar. He read and secured chambers on the Eleventh Floor of Selborne Chambers. At around that time, he met and married Pauline, his wife. By the time he was appointed to the Court in the 1990s, he was one of the twenty most senior members of the Inner Bar in NSW. Hunter KC became one of her Majesty’s Counsel in 1974. He was the picture of a QC in the 1970s and 1980s.

On the Eleventh Floor Hunter KC fraternised with Simon Sheller QC, Theo Simos QC, Vince Bruce KC and a younger Dr AS Bell SC (now the Chief Justice), AJ Meagher SC and Francois Kunc (as their Honours were). Added to that number were the Hon Kevin Lindgren KC, Jim Poulos KC, Phil Greenwood SC and Bruce Collins KC. He mentored many barristers with sage and practical advice (and a measure of humour). Other friends included the Hon Trevor Morling QC, Bill Reddy QC, the Hon JS Cripps QC and many others. On occasion he entertained friends and colleagues in his chambers which were distinctly lined in red tartan carpet. From time to time, Hunter KC convened parties in Chambers on 11 Selborne. There is one tale in particular. Hunter KC threw a party with the late the Hon Simon Sheller QC to celebrate their joint anniversary of admission to the Bar, before their appointments to the Court. They both had a particular liking for French champagne: Bollinger, no less. They ordered it as the drink of choice that evening from the Bar Association when it had a bartender service. The next morning, a quasi-judicial inquiry was instigated by Hunter KC and Sheller QC. The subject was whether it was possible for that many crates of champagne to be consumed by a reasonably small crowd of people in just a few hours. The bill was exorbitant. Was everyone just very thirsty? The findings were never published. But the laughs, Hunter KC said, were golden that night.

In those days, Hunter KC was the definition of a commercial silk. He regularly appeared in commercial causes, general equity and building & construction and some common law cases. He had deep knowledge of case law and procedure, but he was always practical. His area of particular speciality was complex building cases. One of the most well-known of his cases at the Bar was Codelfa Constructions Pty Ltd v State Rail Authority, the eastern suburbs rail line case which became a much-cited authority in Australian contract law. In 1980, Hunter KC took the well trodden path to the Privy Council in London to argue the case Max Cooper Pty Ltd v Sydney City Council. He documented that journey, as it was his first time travelling overseas.

Hunter KC was sworn onto the Supreme Court of NSW on 29 April 1994 by the then Hon Chief Justice AM Gleeson AC GBS KC. He transferred his charming and authoritative court manner to the bench. He enhanced the Court’s functions and was revered. He increased the commercial acumen of the burgeoning commercial division exponentially. Following his retirement Hunter KC continued to have a highly successful post-judicial career as an arbitrator of choice for large firms.

Later in life, Hunter KC owned a property called ‘Levondale’ at Willow Tree on the Liverpool Plains, west of the upper Hunter Valley. Hunter KC loved this property – it was a haven and an escape. In the years he was owner, he was there often and improved it beyond sight. There, with his six children and wife Pauline, they were able to enjoy an historic property with vast rolling hills and endless horizons. His Honour fostered a particular interest in horses, particularly thoroughbreds, and became knowledgeable in equine health. Later, Hunter KC’s interest in the Liverpool Plains was focussed on the protection of that part of the world from the threat of mining.

It was during his ownership of Levondale that Hunter KC found his most memorable years. His Honour had endless stories of accidents, mishaps, and fantastic rural toils at Levondale, whether over the course of a weekend or a month – to the fascination (and mirth) of his fellow practitioners and judges. Hunter KC’s contemporaries have their own memories of his tales of misadventures with vehicles, equipment, animals and certainly children. However, luck was always on his side.

Hunter KC was possessed of a distinct sense of humour, always of the self-deprecating brand. He was a polite observer of human beings. His presence engendered a certain energy and liveliness. He repeated one life lesson often and by which he lived ‘Always leave a party when one is enjoying oneself’. He did that every time – professionally and in life. Hunter KC remained visible for years after his formal retirement from the court in 2002. Then he was an arbitrator par excellence – a role which never seemed to end. Hunter KC was seen as a tall and stylish figure, waving enthusiastically at people in Queen’s Square, usually on the way to an arbitration. He seemed to have time for everyone and forgot no one.

Hunter KC’s funeral was held at St Mary’s Church North Sydney on 28 July 2023 on a fine winter’s afternoon. His Catholic faith remained strong throughout his life, as did his reverence for his Irish heritage. It was a celebratory goodbye. Many old solicitors attended and his friends and colleagues from the Bar and on the Bench lined the pews – testament to how revered and loved in the profession he was. The Honourable Andrew Bell, Chief Justice of NSW and the Hon AM Gleeson AC KC shared readings. Former judges who came to bid him farewell included the Hon Kevin Lindgren, the Hon JP Bryson KC, the Hon John Brownie KC, the Hon WV Windeyer and the Hon PA Bergin SC. The inimitable Paul Daley who was his faithful clerk from the Eleventh Floor attended with Anne Deighton of the floor. Among current judges of the Supreme Court were their Honours AJ Meagher JA and Francois Kunc J. There was at least one of his Court staff. The photo montage told a story of a most wonderful life in the law. We all remembered Hunter KC as an ebullient and joyful man of wit and charm.

His wife of 64 years, Pauline, an artist, survives him. As do his children, Kerry and Chris, Damian and Christelle (who live in France), Kate and Peter, Sophie and Vince, James and Sarah, Michael and Dawn. He was known as ‘Bob Bob’ to his 16 grandchildren: Immi, Nick, Xavier, Marion, Tom, Claire, Eleanor, Hugh, Lachlan, James, Madsie, Gemma, Dom, Louis, Zac and Oliver, each of whom feel deeply the loss.

Requiescat in pace. BN