50 Years at the NSW Bar – Mr Peter Hennessy SC

On the steps of Wagga Wagga Courthouse with three plaintiffs and solicitor Tim Abbott

The significant career of Mr Peter Hennessy SC was celebrated at a luncheon in February 2020, commemorating 50 years holding a practising certificate at the NSW Bar.

Hennessy SC was admitted to the NSW Bar on 1 July 1968, at just 22 years of age, and initially acquired chambers on 8th Floor Wentworth Chambers. This achievement was remarkable, given that Hennessy SC had no family contacts in law and no financial backing, other than a modest sum he had saved himself. This risky step proved to be a risk worth taking.

When Hennessy SC was called to the Bar, he was one of only about 500 barristers in the state of NSW. He read with John Coombs (later QC), who went on to become President of the NSW Bar Association, and enjoyed the company of distinguished floor members such as the late Honourable Rex Smart QC and the late Honourable BSJ O’Keefe QC, who both later became Justices of the Supreme Court of NSW.

From the outset, Hennessy SC loved the work and the responsibility, and appreciated the faith that solicitors and clients placed in barristers, as well as the duties that practitioners owed to the profession.

Hennessy SC soon acquired a room on 8th Floor Selborne Chambers, where he remained for 30 years. Among his circle of friends there, was Jack Kenny QC, who was a dear friend throughout his career. Hennessy SC built a distinguished career and a strong reputation on 8 Selborne, with solicitors who briefed him in the 1970s continuing to brief him well into his later years in practice. He greatly enjoyed and benefited from the knowledge, experience and comradery that existed on that floor, and prized the advice and assistance he received from fellow members of the Bar. The great identities of the Bar at the time were the Hon WMC Gummow QC, the Hon JD Heydon QC, the Hon John Kearney QC and the Hon HH Glass QC and his fellow floor members.

Speaking at the lunch to celebrate his 50 years at the bar, Hennessy SC recalled the amicable contact and easy dialogue between lawyers and members of the judiciary, especially so with circuit work, in which he engaged often. To experience the ethics rules of the legal profession in practice was something very satisfying to Hennessy SC, who believed that the high standards of conduct placed upon lawyers set the profession apart from any other occupation. Hennessy SC recalled a particular memory of the Honourable Chief Justice Gleeson, who presided over cases at first instance at the Supreme Court Circuit in Bathurst for three weeks. Chief Justice Gleeson’s motivation was to maintain contact with and observe real litigants, and this experience was most instructive and memorable for Hennessy SC. Several Supreme Court and District Court judges, their staff and members of the legal profession were welcomed to Hennessy SC’s country home at Bathurst from 1980 onwards.

Hennessy SC moved to Jack Shand Chambers in 1998, and enjoyed a full professional life there for some 20 years. Hennessy SC made reference to Des Kennedy, The Racoon (Acting Judge, Colin O'Connor QC ), The Trout (Mr Dennis Wheelahan QC) and Mark Gilbert, without whom life would not quite have been the same.

Furthermore, Hennessy SC recalled fondly the relationships between leading counsel and junior barristers and solicitors. In particular, he recalled the importance of mentoring and exchange of views which allowed junior counsel to evolve and mature. Hennessy SC recalled many friendships and the key role that members of the inner Bar have in the life of junior counsel.

In his years after the Bar Hennessy SC has undertaken a lifestyle change, now tending a large rural property near Bathurst in regional NSW. While he is certainly not less busy, he still practises the law in a pro bono capacity for friends and acquaintances. This interest and continuing role in exercising his legal mind reflects a balance that he has achieved in life after lengthy service at the NSW Bar. This work now is just as, if not more, fulfilling than when Hennessy SC was a full-time member of the Bar.

Hennessy SC concluded his remarks at the luncheon with some particularly incisive comments about the law as he has observed it latterly. Firstly, that access to legal services is more remote than ever for the significant population which lives in rural NSW. Secondly, that the presence of the courts has become remote in recent years, with circuit sittings becoming increasingly rare and tribunal hearings even rarer. Without the presence of the various courts, the administration of justice is all but invisible to those in rural NSW. This affects the practical reality of the rural Australian community. Justice seems at a distance.

Hennessy SC observed that his appreciation of the legal profession had evolved over the decades, especially under the influence of his wife and five daughters. This evolution in mindset was more like an enlightenment and continues to be a source of inspiration and fulfilment in the years after active practice at the NSW Bar. Hennessy SC, concluded, by noting his appreciation of his wife, Denise, and his band of five daughters,(four of whom were admitted to Legal Practice') who assisted him greatly in the part he has played in the administration of justice and the legal system throughout his career.