A New Age for the Commonwealth Law Reports

They’re the reports that lawyers become familiar with on day one of law school. The Commonwealth Law Reports (CLRs) are synonymous with Australia’s common law system, being the authorised reports of our highest court.

New co-editors Christopher Horan QC and Dr Paul Vout are ushering in a new era for the reports after the passing of long-standing editor James Merralls AM QC.

The CLRs: The apex of Australian law reports

Since 1903, the CLRs have published full-text decisions of the High Court, accompanied by headnotes which encapsulate the facts and outcome of each decision. Each headnote is checked by the relevant judges before publication, ensuring utmost accuracy and authority. The reports are widely read and relied on by many – from rookie law students writing their first essays to seasoned barristers and judges presiding in cases.

Behind the scenes is a small, select group of lawyers who are the reporters for the CLRs, comprising Vinerian Scholars, Rhodes Scholars, prize winners from Australian universities, former associates of High Court Justices, and other young barristers of high distinction. Within this same prestigious group of legal professionals are the editors of the reports – only seven have been appointed since 1903.

James Merralls AM QC: 47 years editing the CLRs

The Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, on the passing of Merralls in August 2016, extended his sympathy to family and friends, and highlighted Merralls’s notable contribution to the CLRs:

“In the many accomplishments of a lifetime’s service to the law, one stands out in particular: Mr Merralls’s editorship of the Commonwealth Law Reports… for a remarkable 47 years – almost half of the entire life of the Court.”

Merralls was further described as “one of the Australian Bar’s most eminent members” with a distinctively Melburnian approach and style, and a “reputation for erudition and tireless preparation.” His practice was extensive, and he specialised in constitutional law and equity. Earlier in his career, he served as associate to Chief Justice Sir Owen Dixon.

The Attorney-General said:

“His summaries of the judicial reasoning, contained in the ‘headnotes’ to each case, were an unerringly accurate précis of each decision, relied upon by generations of barristers and judges. There will surely never be a longer-serving or more influential editor of the Commonwealth Law Reports.”

Merrall’s passing may have left some large shoes to fill, but the reports’ new co-editors bring a wealth of experience and legal knowledge to the table.

Introducing Christopher Horan QC, Co-Editor

Christopher Horan QC describes his recent promotion from reporter to co-editor of the CLRs as “a responsibility as much as it is an honour”.

Chris, who has a broad practice in public and commercial law, worked for the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department before coming to the Victorian Bar, and earlier was associate in the High Court to Justice Brennan.

In 2016, Chris was awarded the Victorian Bar Pro Bono Trophy in recognition of his substantial pro bono efforts, particularly in assisting migration applicants to challenge government decisions.

His first foray into reporting for the CLRs came about largely due to circumstance. In an interview with Thomson Reuters he said, “I was sharing a floor with Jim [James Merralls] and I can’t remember whether it was him or me who asked about the role but I already had some interest in reporting, having worked at the High Court as an associate.”

One thing that distinguishes the CLRs from other reports in Australia, he says, is that they report not just the court’s decision but also the arguments made by the parties. “As a reporter, you have to read all the written submissions and the transcript. You don’t just look at the end result.”

While it makes the exercise of reporting more time-consuming, delving deeply into the background of the case, and the way the case was put, is great in terms of professional development, he says.

For aspiring reporters, Chris says the first skill is obviously the analysis of decisions. Drafting skills and the ability to write clearly and effectively are also essentials, along with an extremely keen attention to detail; a reporter must hone skills in distilling the essential aspects of a case.

Introducing Dr Paul Vout, Co-Editor

Dr Paul Vout’s recent appointment as co-editor of the CLRs is a high point in a long path in legal publishing, commentating and reporting. He’s also a title editor on The Laws of Australia (including the forthcoming third edition of Unconscionable Conduct), Australian editor of the American Law Reports International and was the China correspondent for the Asian Commercial Law Review. He also edits and co-authors several law text books.

His interest in publishing goes back to his university days, Paul says. “I did law at Sydney University and they had the Sydney Law Review, which was a classic black letter law review, and then they had Blackacre which is a yearbook. It occurred to me there was nothing published by the university that linked black letter law to more general social issues, so some friends and I got together and started a journal called Polemic.”

Paul interviewed Justice Michael Kirby for Polemic, which eventually led to every law student’s dream job at the time: an associateship with the distinguished former High Court Justice. Paul then went on to become the first Chief Representative in China of Blake Dawson Waldron (now Ashurst) before joining the Victorian Bar. He now advises and appears in all areas of equity and commercial law, specialising in statutory construction, contract law and unconscionable conduct.

Before his appointment as co-editor, Paul was a reporter with the CLRs since 2002. Coincidentally, he started on the same volume as his fellow co-editor, Chris.

Following in Merralls’s 47 years of footsteps, Paul says, “You can’t help but come into the role with a degree of intimidation… it’s daunting, and maintaining his level of quality and stewardship is a great challenge that Chris and I are working to tackle.”

The future of the CLRs

Having two people to steer the CLRS into the future is a definite benefit, says Paul. “We’ve got the reassurance of having two sets of eyes look at the same thing. Chris has an incredible eye for detail, and that is absolute gold in this scenario. I’m a process person, so I’m always keeping things moving.”

And while Merralls may have taken much CLRs knowledge and wisdom with him, Paul says they have relied heavily on another person who has been similarly dedicated to the CLRs for many years: “Chris and I couldn’t have possibly stepped into the role and kept everything moving without the incredible work and experience of Senior Production Editor Carolyn May and her colleagues at Thomson Reuters. She worked with Jim for 29 years and has provided the continuity and corporate knowledge about everything from style to the administrative aspects.”

Looking ahead, the co-editors see the CLRs maintaining their status and usefulness, despite digital trends. Moving into the digital age means the CLRs are no longer the sole source of High Court decisions, with judgments also available from online sources and the court’s website.

However, the CLRs add value to the decisions, by providing headnotes and summaries of argument. They now give practitioners some of that most valuable commodity – time, helping them cut through the overload of information available electronically.

Thomson Reuters is delighted to welcome the new co-editors and congratulates them on their appointment. “We look forward to the continued success of the CLRs thanks to Chris and Paul’s combined 30 years of reporting experience and dedication to law reporting,” said Australian Legal Portfolio General Manager, Tim Pollard.


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