Looking Back on the 7th Editor of the ALJ: The Hon Peter W Young AO QC

After a record 24 years of service as General Editor of The Australian Law Journal, Justice Peter Wolstenholme Young retired from his post in April 2016. The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG pens this tribute to the achievements of the seventh General Editor of the ALJ, who has overseen many changes in the legal profession, the law and in Australia as a whole, and has faithfully recorded them in the ALJ, bringing his encyclopaedic knowledge and whimsical sense of humour to the journal while doing so.

Until now, the longest serving General Editor of the ALJ was Sir Bernard Sugerman, who took the journal from its foundation in 1927, to the conclusion of World War II. To Joe Starke and then to Peter Young fell the responsibilities of leading the flagship of the publisher into a new age of technological, social and professional change. The record of longest devotion has now passed from Sir Bernard Sugerman to Peter Young (19 years to 24 years).

Peter Wolstenholme Young was born the day before Anzac Day in 1940. He was educated at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School and studied law at the University of Sydney where he graduated Bachelor of Laws in 1963. He was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 3 May 1963, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, James Young, who was a Crown Prosecutor.

Peter Young has been supported throughout his very busy life by his wife Pamela and their three children. As every regular reader of the ALJ knows, most years he and his family would spend Christmas in Surfers Paradise and he would invariably be found travelling overseas around August. Usually it involved a journey to a distant country but one within our legal galaxy. There, his hugely inquisitive mind could be engaged in investigating aspects of law that were similar, and those that were different, when compared to the laws of Australia. There would be few judges or lawyers in this nation who have anything like the encyclopaedic knowledge that Peter Young built up concerning the big and small details of the law. Just to fulfil his duties as General Editor he had to read enormous amounts of material and to read widely.

Peter Young was unique in his appointment as General Editor, as he had already attained judicial office at the time. In accordance with the traditions of earlier times, Sugerman, Bowen, Else-Mitchell and Fox had retired immediately they were appointed. Peter Young came to the office with a full judicial load; but heroic energy. Clearly, he had a perspective of the law that was not confined to his daily bread in equity, trusts and mortgages. Obviously, he believed that he could bring to the task new and different qualities. And so he did.

Peter Young kept to his promise to attempt a make-over of the ALJ to enhance its utility for practising lawyers. For example, he introduced very useful short articles of his own on highly practical subjects. He continued to draw on the unrivalled expertise of Professor Peter Butt in his regular column, “The Conveyancer/Conveyancing and Property”. Happily, that is a service that has continued right up to the present time and is likely to survive the immediate change of General Editor. He began publishing again, as articles, public addresses of leading judges – a practice that had slipped out of fashion. This was also a way in which he could include news and opinions from States of the Commonwealth other than his own to quieten the critics.

Peter Young introduced completely new items on developments in regional Australia and in New Zealand. Most innovative of all was a new concept of “Forum”, designed to encourage practitioners to engage in active dialogue with each other about practical and theoretical problems of broad interest. He frankly confessed that, after the first column by that name, he was disappointed by the lack of response that it drew from the profession. However, he published a number of letters, some of them quite critical of the ALJ and one of them suggesting that it should be renamed the “NSW (Bar and Bench) Journal”.

Although Peter Young was truly catholic in the wide frame of reference he accepted for contributions to the ALJ, and the subjects covered in the learned articles that he selected for a space in the journal, inevitably some of his personal interests would shine through. One of these was, predictably, his interest in religion and also the law as it affected religious bodies. If ever Peter Young saw a case in which a novel point of ecclesiastical law was mentioned, he would write a case note upon it. Often such cases probably appeared exotic to the average reader. As, for example, on the power of a bishop to command a priest to stop ringing the bells of his church at a high noise level, causing neighbours to complain. But these and other whimsical cases, including quite regular publication of vocal criticism of his own work as General Editor, endeared Justice Young to those who cherished the broad perspective the law in which he so obviously delighted.

From the start, he was surprisingly interested in new technology. Thus, back in 1992, the facsimile machine was all the rage. So we could rely on the General Editor to bring to our notice some of the legal problems for contract law that were presented by this new device. He urged us to contrast a judicial decision made by one of his colleagues with the old authority by which a sealed envelope was usually not considered received until it was opened. In an age in which citations from the English Reports were becoming much less common, even in Equity, it was somehow reassuring to be reminded of how those who went before had tackled analogous problems in a very different age.

In the law, the final word is rarely written in stone. Which is probably just as well for a journal like the ALJ. Those who have followed Justice Young’s writings will know his ready willingness to listen to a new argument. His preparedness to mould and adapt the law to new challenges. His understanding that change is an imperative in the modern age. They will also know that he has been possessed throughout his service with a gentle sense of humour and an ironical view of the law that he was faithfully recording and describing, month after month.

But there is also his personal modesty. This is not always a strong characteristic of a top performing legal practitioner. Constantly trying to stimulate his professional colleagues into some new reflection on the rules with which they work, Peter Young recently recorded the books that he thought deserved the highest honour in the Australian legal profession. In this list he included the most recent edition of Meagher, Gummow and Lehane. He observed, ruefully, that his own notable text, On Equity (which he had written to meet professional feelings at the time that MG&L was excessively opinionated and less practical than required in mundane lawyering) would not make it. Perhaps, he speculated, his book might find its way into the list by 2050. Yet, there are many who would place it in the list right now. This is another astonishing achievement, given that the book was written while he was doing so many other important tasks; including as a judge and as General Editor of this Journal.

The ALJ has remained the flagship and journal of record of the Australian legal profession. There is nothing quite like it in England. Nor even in the continental common law jurisdictions that have every reason to create such a platform for the legal profession such as the United States, Canada, India and Nigeria. We alone in Australia have been fortunate enough to have the ALJ. Peter Young has helped to keep it going and to adapt it to fast changing times.

Naturally, he was supported in the production of each monthly part of the Journal by a devoted team of production editors, assistant editors and special topic Section Editors. Foremost among these should be mentioned the three employees of the publisher who saw the Journal through the extended production line each time: Dorothy Bransfield, Isabel Begg, and the present ALJ Senior Editor, Cheryle King.

Although it is a word that Peter Young would never himself use, the ALJ is truly “iconic”. It was born in 1927 just as the building of that other Australian icon, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, got underway. It has witnessed enormous changes in our country, the world and the legal system. Through it all, Peter Young, as our helmsman, has steered us through the tempestuous seas. He now hands the bridge of the vessel over to his colleague, Justice François Kunc, of whom we have great expectations. Peter Young’s editorship of the ALJ has been an extraordinary service which has greatly benefited the Australian judiciary, the legal profession and the community. On behalf of the publishers, his co-workers, the readers and the broader legal profession of Australia, I express a sense of gratitude and profound admiration.

Source: The full tribute can be found in Australian Law Journal Vol 90 Pt 5

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