The Chronicle of a Young Lawyer by Kerry Dillon, Hybrid Publishers, August 2020, 384pp. ISBN: 9781925736410, $35. Available from Booktopia & all good bookstores, www.hybridpublishers.com.au and as an ebook from Amazon, Kobo, Google Books and Apple iBookstore
NOOSA – In 1970 I was the 25-year old assistant manager of Radio Rabaul, my main responsibility being running its news service.
For most of my time at the station my staff consisted just of me.
The Mataungan Association, a proto-independence movement, was in full cry and its legitimate call for social equity and fairer land apportionment for the Tolai people was mixed with the illegitimacy of rebellion and violence.
The court system in the town was red hot with litigation, some of it of great importance socially and politically as well as legally, and when the major cases were running, I spent a few hours each day covering proceedings in the large airy court house or in magistrate Quinlivan's small office where he painstakingly typed the evidence as it was presented to him.
I was learning court reporting by doing and by recourse to Abrahams' The Law for Writers & Journalists.
But it was a struggle to comprehend some of the complex twists and turns of a court in full flight - and I still clearly recall one of my early and embarrassing lessons in the art.
I was departing the court one lunch time, striding up the street to file a report for Radio Rabaul on the morning’s proceedings in a criminal trial, when I heard a voice calling out some distance behind me.
Running at pace along the side of the road towards me was a bewigged, black cloaked figure wildly waving its arms.
As it approached I realised it was the clerk of the court, who asked me was I going to report on the morning’s proceedings.
“Well, yes,” I responded, to be breathlessly told that the court had been closed by the judge (an act I had missed) and the story I was about to tell the world was subjudice and I was about to place myself in contempt.
This was a situation where I really required the services Kerry Dillon, the author of The Chronicle of a Young Lawyer.
I don’t know whether Kerry was present in Rabaul for that particular trial but I now know that he travelled the exotic Papua New Guinea supreme court criminal circuit from 1969 to 1971 – and Rabaul trials were a significant part of his life.
“The volcanic political atmosphere in the bubbling cauldron of the caldera that was the Gazelle Peninsula came to a head in December 1969,” he writes. It was the year he was appointed, at age 22, to the office of the Public Solicitor, WA (Peter) Lalor.
I arrived in beautiful, steamy Rabaul in January 1970 and that caldera of volatile politics continued bubbling for all that year and beyond.
Kerry’s memoir, written half a century later and from the mature and knowledgeable perspective of a man who achieved high legal office, tells of how the young lawyer appeared as counsel defending indigenous people accused of serious criminal offences including rape and murder.
Like all of us who spent the early years of our careers in the then territory, Kerry learned and experienced very much in a very short time.
The Chronicle of a Young Lawyer tells the story of his day-to-day life and of criminal cases in both big towns and remote out-stations accessible only by air.
It depicts the clash of cultures as Australian criminal law was introduced and required to operate alongside traditional law, sometimes conflicting with it.
Fortunately the legal system under pax Australiana was mostly benevolent, the lawyers understanding and sensitive to Papua New Guineans' difficulties in comprehending the new ideas of western law they were being introduced to.
As Michael Adams QC has written in an appraisal of this book, “The differing ways of life between Papua New Guinean communities, and the wide variation in the character of their interactions with Europeans and the [Australian] Administration, was a significant part of the complex environment in which Kerry’s experiences in the country took place and which his account illustrates”.
Kerry grew up on a farm on Bruny Island, Tasmania, before studying law. After Papua New Guinea, he became a magistrate in Hong Kong and then director of the Australian Legal Aid Office in Tasmania, assistant director of the Legal Aid Commission in Queensland and Director of Australian Legal Aid Office in New South Wales. He now lives in Queensland.
There have been few books written by professional lawyers on the coming of western law to Papua New Guinea and this chronicle of a young lawyer who experienced the territory at a critical time on its journey to independence is a valuable addition to that small legacy.
The years before PNG independence in 1975 were a time when many of us were coming of age in our careers just as a country was coming of age in its sovereignty.
The Chronicle of a Young Lawyer is an important book and will join on many bookshelves those other valuable memoirs of participants who, in an unusual time and an unfamiliar environment, assisted Papua New Guinea as it hurtled - not without pitfalls - towards self-rule.