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Barrie Ronald Thorley (1927–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

Barrie "Thumper" Thorley gained his nickname by thumping the judicial bench when he became angry. He showed throughout his career that he could take a thumping, too.

As a NSW District Court judge he was attacked in the Local Court in 1985 during an imbroglio over the actions of the lawyer Morgan Ryan. He was attacked in the NSW Parliament in 1988, allegedly having ''orchestrated'' the prosecutions of the then High Court judge Lionel Murphy and the one-time District Court judge John Foord. He was also attacked as chairman of the NSW Police Board for allegedly going ''soft'' on interrogation of a fellow board member, the police commissioner Tony Lauer.

The NSW Supreme Court reversed his decision in the NSW Racing Appeals Tribunal on a punishment for the bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse over the ''extravagant odds'' affair. Despite the setbacks, Thumper proved to be a tough cookie, with a string of high-profile appointments and robust decisions to his name.

Barrie Ronald Thorley was born in Manly on December 2, 1927, son of George Thorley, a Commonwealth Bank manager, and his wife, Myee. The family had descended from a Third Fleet convict, Samuel Thorley.

Barrie Thorley attended schools in Manly, and in his early years was surrounded by rugby identities such as Harold Tolhurst and developed an enduring affection for the game. He went onto Manly Intermediate High, then won a scholarship to attend the King's School, Parramatta, where he passed the Leaving Certificate in 1943.

He enrolled in law at the University of Sydney and started his articles with J. Stuart Thom & Co. In 1945 he joined Manly Rugby Club, but in his first game, in third grade, dislocated his kneecap and ended his playing days. In 1947 he married Nora Winn. In 1948 their daughter, Prudence, was born, and he started practice as a solicitor.

Tolhurst, who had become an international rugby referee, suggested Thorley take up the whistle as well – which he did not long after becoming secretary of the referees' association. In 1953 the Thorleys divorced, and he travelled to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, with the Australian rugby team as their referee. From there he went to Britain, where he was the Australian representative on the International Rugby Football Board.

In 1954 he was admitted as a barrister of the Supreme Court of NSW and went on to become a member of the bar council. But his interest in sport never waned. In 1955 he was elected to the management committee of the NSW Rugby Union, where he did committee jobs and was instrumental in forming the Australian Barbarians rugby team.

In 1957 Thorley married Robin Lawry, a nurse at Royal North Shore Hospital. Thorley got involved in the racing world, appearing for the Australian Jockeys Club and appeals by people such as the jockey George Mulley.

In 1968 he was appointed a judge of the NSW District Court and soon showed he could be tough. He imposed a life sentence on Edward James ''Jockey'' Smith for attempting to discharge a revolver at an arresting police officer.

Thorley was appointed to other bodies, such as the NSW Medical Disciplinary Tribunal and the NSW Police Tribunal. With the latter he dealt with the case of Roger Rogerson, finding seven of nine charges of police misconduct against him sustained and remarking that Rogerson had betrayed public trust. He recommended Rogerson be dismissed from the police force.

Thorley retired from the bench in 1987, but his work continued, including duties as inaugural chief executive officer of the newly formed NSW Judicial Commission.

He also acted as a coroner in an inquiry into a mysterious fire 17 years before that had destroyed the garage of the whistleblower Eddie Azzopardi. Thorley could not determine who the culprit or culprits were, but did say that Azzopardi had been harassed by police and that stories put about that Azzopardi was ''disturbed'' and had a ''decaying'' mind were unjustified.

Along with Ian Temby, QC, Thorley was in the running to become the first head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, but he was castigated in parliament by the ALP leader of the upper house, Jack Hallam. Hallam said Thorley was leader of the ''hawks'' of the District Court, and that he had taken a partisan approach in the cases of Lionel Murphy and John Foord.

Temby got the ICAC appointment, but there were many more appointments for Thorley. In 1989 he was appointed chairman of the State Drug Crime Commission, appointed to the one-man Racing Appeals Tribunal, created an AM in the Queen's Birthday Honours and appointed part-time chairman of the newly established NSW Police Board.

In 1991 he was appointed full-time chairman, stepping down from the drug crime job. Two years later he was appointed full-time head of the NSW Crime Commission. He retained his position of chairman of the police board but in a part-time capacity.

The pace did not let up. In 1999 he was appointed chairman of the NSW Greyhound Racing Tribunal. In 2001 he did a review of five cases of sexual harassment in the racing industry, and said in his report that there were far more unreported cases.

In 2003 he reported on heavy drinking and racial and sexual harassment at Goulburn Police Academy, giving voice to concerns that students who were engaging in sex with the instructors were punished while the offending staff members were simply transferred back to their commands.

In one of his last official engagements, last year, he sat on a panel to interview 75 candidates for a five-member board of Racing NSW.

Barrie Thorley is survived by Robin, daughters Pru, Sara, Rachel, Meg and Hannah, eight granddaughters and five great-grandsons.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Thorley, Barrie Ronald (1927–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 July 2024.

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