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Athol Randolph Moffitt (1914–2007)

Athol Moffitt, the Supreme Court judge for 22 years who conducted a landmark royal commission into organised crime — the first of the modern era — would never say die; nor would he be quietened by mandatory retirement. His brilliant intellect compelled him to write books, articles, letters and otherwise comment publicly.

He warned of the dangers of organised crime, the drug menace and the ineffectiveness of political response. When the dust settled, few people ever said he was wrong.

The son of a NSW workers' compensation judge, Herbert William Moffitt, Athol Randolph Moffitt was educated at North Sydney Boys High School and Sydney University, where he graduated with first class honours. He was admitted to the NSW bar in 1938 following not only his father, but his sister, Gwen, a practising solicitor, into the law.

When war broke out, he joined the AIF as a private and served in the artillery, rising to the rank of captain. Arriving in Borneo in 1945, he was employed in prosecuting Japanese who had been party to the brutish Sandakan death marches. With Allied forces nearing Sandakan, on Borneo island, the Japanese had ordered prisoners to march 265 kilometres to Ranau. Of 2434 Australian and British prisoners in Sandakan, only six survived — 1787 Australians and 641 British perished in the camp, along the track or at Ranau.

Following prosecution at Labuan, eight Japanese, including the Sandakan camp commandant, Captain Hoshijima Susumi, were hanged. A further 55 were imprisoned. The atrocity, and what became in Moffitt's mind a scandal over a stalled rescue plan, remained with him, finding expression decades later in a book, Project Kingfisher.

Returning to the bar, Moffitt practised mainly in common law and equity. In 1948 he married Heather Williams, who had also served in World War II and sang soprano in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals.

Moffitt was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1956, and became a member of the bar council. In 1959 he acted as a Supreme Court judge for six months. He was again appointed acting judge in 1962, assisting in the divorce court jurisdiction as a relief for the ailing Justice Bill Dovey. He became a permanent judge in November that year.

In 1969 Moffitt went to the Court of Appeal. In 1973 he was appointed to head the royal commission into allegations of organised crime in licensed clubs in NSW.

The royal commission, which brought Sydney's "Mr Big", Lennie McPherson, into the witness box, uncovered a vast can of worms and brought to light for the first time the hidden menace of organised crime.

In 1974 Moffitt became president of the Appeals Court. He was awarded the Order of St Michael and St George in the 1979 Queen's Birthday Honours and, later, the medal in the Order of Australia (OAM).

In June 1984 Moffitt turned 70 and was obliged to retire. He recalled at his farewell ceremony his swearing-in as a temporary judge in 1959 by the then chief justice, Sir Kenneth Street. His son, Sir Laurence Street, was chief justice in 1984, prompting Moffitt to say: "You could say, I've gone from Street to Street!" Commenting on Sir Laurence's thoroughly researched speech setting out the details of Moffitt's legal career, he said: "If all else fails, you could become an investigative journalist."

Of what lay ahead, Moffitt said: "I think after 25 years on the bench, it's better to move on while you are full of vigour. I have got many thoughts in mind."

The following year, he published a book, A Quarter to Midnight, on organised crime, which he said was more extensive and serious than the political masters were prepared to admit. Its extent had been shown in five crucial royal commissions, including his own.

The National Crime Authority, he said, was a "lame duck", and solidarity among trade unions and the ALP had hampered the forces of law enforcement. Moffitt said that changes to taxation, banking and criminal law were needed to allow the profits of organised crime to be identified.

He said: "I did not single out the ALP, but pointed out other parties long in office and instanced the Askin government, the Queensland government and the present ALP government, which has a prospect of being long in office throughout Australia, as the likely subject of an infiltration of organised crime and corruption into the system."

Moffitt's comments predictably brought opposition, but he was largely vindicated, as in the Fitzgerald inquiry in Queensland. He said there was no room for complacency: the offices of the Attorney-General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the judiciary were suffering a decline in independence. He looked critically at institutions such as the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Judicial Commission.

Moffitt then switched his attention to the drug menace, co-writing in 1998 another book, Drug Precipice, and following that up with Drug Alert, a simpler exposition of the problem. In 1999 he publicly criticised the opening of a legal injection room in Kings Cross. In 2000 he donned his hat as a war crimes prosecutor to say that prosecution of the alleged World War II war criminal Konrad Kalejs, given the passage of time, was unrealistic. In his last public address, to a professional club, Probus, last year, he revealed that Lenny McPherson had been a "supergrass", a paid informant to his 1973-74 royal commission all along.

Athol Moffitt is survived by the younger of two sons, Malcolm.

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'Moffitt, Athol Randolph (1914–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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