The Honourable David Levine AO RFD QC

The Honourable David Levine AO RFD QC

τὸν κρατοῦντα μαλθακῶς θεὸς πρόσωθεν εὐμενῶς προσδέρκεται.

God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 951-2.

The Honourable David Levine AO RFD QC died, aged 75 years, on 11 May 2020. Levine QC was a traditional man of letters and became a pre-eminent practitioner in Defamation, eventually becoming the List Judge of that List in the Supreme Court of NSW.

In 1962 Levine QC commenced at the University of Sydney, studying for an Arts/Law degree. He was the University Union’s Secretary for the debating society. He was an active participant in Union debating, and in one such debate in the mid-1960s, after commenting on the Malayan confrontation, he was accused of being an ASIO agent by another student. Levine QC is recorded as having said that although he was not, he had never been so flattered in his life.

Levine QC attempted to detach himself from all matters political, and devoted himself completely to the practice of the law. Sheepishly, he maintained that he was interested in good government and took a passing interest in engagement in any discourse or discussion in politics. Levine QC graduated with the BA in 1964 and then the LLB in 1969. He commenced articles of clerkship at the Messrs Peck & Draper, and then he progressed to the company of the Messrs Stephen Jacques & Stephen. This is where his career in litigation, and especially defamation, flourished.

Levine QC was called to the Bar in 1971. He was a member of 12th Floor Wentworth before becoming a founding member of Blackstone Chambers. At the Bar, he was known foremost as a publisher’s advocate, and he represented the interests of Fairfax, the ABC, Channels 7 and 10, all at a time when free speech and consciousness thereof were nascent. His pupil-master was David Yeldham (later QC and a Supreme Court judge). Levine QC greatly admired his pupil-master, and was also a great devotee of the late Honourable David Hunt QC (later a Supreme Court Judge). Levine QC would himself sit on the Supreme Court eventually, and he would inherit from the Honourable David Hunt QC that famous old list.

Levine QC kept exceptional company at the NSW Bar. He fought cases with and against the Honourable TEF Hughes AO QC, and the patrician Alec Shand QC. Levine QC is rumoured to have said that he erred on the side of caution, rather than advance to higher levels of bravado, in that company. Many colleagues remember him as an affable and friendly man capable of warmth and good feeling.

He was the pre-eminent defamation silk, an area which has always been rarefied. He saw the developments in the common law of damages for hurt feelings, disappointment and the advent of garden-variety celebrity as it took form.

In 1984, Levine QC took silk, and not three years later, he was offered judicial appointment to the District Court where his late father Aaron Levine had sat as a judge. The Honourable Terry Sheahan, the Attorney-General at the time, attended his swearing in. As history often repeats itself, even Sheahan recalled that his father, Billy Sheahan QC, had sworn in Levine QC’s father Aaron. Plus ca change…

Like his father Aaron, Levine QC inherited an appreciation for English literature. He was a consummate bibliophile of the first order. Levine QC kept a library of leatherbound volumes as fine as anyone could have in the English-speaking world. Among his floor-to-ceiling library of some 16,000 books were the highly coveted editions usually contested by international collectors printed on vellum from another time. Within those tomes were the lines of Portia’s speech about the quality of mercy and justice from The Merchant of Venice, which inspired his father and in turn him. Levine QC carried those lines in his mind throughout his life, and like the Bard himself wrote and quoted in judgments his observations of his fellow man under the Rule of Law.

In chambers before a portrait of his father Aaron. Late 1980s

Like Portia, Levine QC’s appreciation of the quality of mercy in human beings was golden. Levine QC excelled in Latin, Classical Greek and Ancient History at school. Decades later Levine QC was still able to recite slabs of text, in hexameters, like many a scholar, of the Aeneid and from Ovid, committed to memory while a boy. He also possessed a beautiful edition of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu which he cherished, another great author who committed to paper memories and impressions of things past.

At the District Court, and also following his elevation in 1992 to the Supreme Court, Levine QC cherished the country circuits. He instilled intense loyalty in his staff and remained a close friend and mentor to several of his associates and tipstaffs. He treated with dignity and humanity those in the criminal trials over which he presided. In the case involving the killing of teenager Jasmin Lodge, while the media and defence had focussed on her role as a sex-worker, he remarked at the sentencing that 'her life was as precious as the life of any other member of the community.'

As the judge in charge of the defamation list, Levine QC endeavoured to reduce the length of trials and resolve cases as efficiently as possible, in order to cut through unnecessary technicalities and limit the waste of resources. He created a robustly fair atmosphere in his courtroom, particularly for younger or less experienced counsel. Levine QC notoriously heard Australia’s longest-ever defamation case in the Supreme Court of NSW, Marsden v Amalgamated Television Services Pty Ltd [2001] NSWSC 510. The hearing lasted 30 months from first hearing to judgment and ran over some 200 days in court. As gruelling as this process was, Levine QC presided attentively and fairly, and delivered an extremely comprehensive judgment of over 2300 pages, demonstrating his dexterity and accuracy in the administration of justice.

Levine QC never tired of public service, even in his post-judicial years from 2005 onwards. He is remembered for his role as Inspector of the ICAC’s blistering investigations, scrutinising barristers and judicial colleagues. He was fearless. In 2006, Levine QC was appointed Chair of the Serious Offenders Review Council, which advised on the security classification, placement and management of inmates. For 32 years he was member of the NSW Navy Legal Panel. He was the President of the Defence Force Board of Inquiry into the crash of Black Hawk 221. Even in these difficult instances, Levine QC’s eminent qualities of warmth and humanity shone through.

In addition to the judicial burden which he bore with distinction, Levine QC zealously supported the Arts, having served as Chair of the Friends of the State Library of NSW, a councillor of the NSW Art Gallery Society and as a governor of the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum.

Levine QC was married to Agnes for over 50 years, and the two proved to be an unparalleled partnership; their home was convivial, full of insightful and witty conversation. As a couple, they were a delightful company. Levine QC is survived by Agnes, his sister Prudence, his daughters Naomi and Judith, his son Aaron, and seven grandchildren.

Levine QC will be remembered for his wry sense of humour, his kind and compassionate manner on the bench, and his magnificent collection of books.

Kevin Tang
8 Wentworth Chambers