Remembering Philip Cummins AM 1939–2019

The Hon Philip Cummins AM made a significant and sustained contribution to the Victorian justice system. The Hon Justice Murray Kellam AO pays tribute to a much-loved member of the MLS community.

Philip Cummins
The Hon Philip Cummins AM. Image supplied.

The Hon Philip Cummins AM (LLB 1962, BA 1965, GDipArts (Crim) 1966, LLM 1976, M.SCI Psychiatry-Thesis 2010) loved life. He embraced it with an enthusiasm and an energy that was plain to see. One only had to hear him talking to his wife Maree or their children to know of his deep love, affection and interest in their lives.

Philip also loved the law, a love which I suspect was engendered to a considerable degree by the iconic professors who taught him at Melbourne Law School. He saw the law as a powerful force for good in our community, but was not blind to its deficiencies and was much involved in its reform.

Philip was educated at Xavier College and commenced at the University of Melbourne in 1957, where he graduated in law and arts. His arts degree included a major in psychology, a discipline in which he maintained a life-long interest, later qualifying as a Master of Science (Psychiatry) as well as a Master of Laws.

Philip was admitted to practise on 2 March 1964, having served his articles at Cleary Ross and Doherty, where he worked as a solicitor for a year before signing the Bar Roll in early 1965. He practised as a junior principally in criminal law, but after taking silk in 1978, appeared regularly in common law cases as well. He served on the Bar Council for 11 consecutive years, as well as serving on 14 committees, chairing seven.

He loved his life as a barrister and had a deep and abiding affection for both branches of the profession, but particularly for the Victorian Bar. He must have been flooded with young barristers knocking on his door and seeking advice about problems they had. That advice was always given freely. Philip truly was a mentor to both members of the Bar and, later, to more junior judges.

Philip served with distinction on the Supreme Court between February 1988 and November 2009, as a trial judge and on the Full Court. He served at times as an Acting Judge of Appeal and was the Senior Judge in the Trial Division as well as Principal Judge of the Criminal Division.

He held a great respect for the institution of a fearless and independent judiciary, but at the same time held firm views as to how the judiciary could continue to be a significant force for good in the twenty-first century.

Upon ceasing his judicial life in 2009, Philip became President of the community organisation Court Network, identifying with its service philosophy that anyone who comes to court is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, and to have information about court processes explained to them.

In addition, Philip chaired the Victoria Law Foundation from 2009 until 2014. He was particularly passionate about the Foundation’s education function to assist Victorians in understanding the law. Even after ceasing as Chair in 2014 he continued to travel, speaking to school children about the law.

For more than 20 years, Philip was an independent lecturer at the University of Melbourne on ethics and professional conduct. He coconducted practical seminars on ethical problems for the National Judicial College of Australia, and supported the Judicial College of Victoria by presenting sessions on victims of crime and family violence.

Philip also had a long commitment to child protection. In 1993 he was the judge in the trial relating to the murder of Daniel Valerio. The circumstances which led to that case appalled Philip, and it was a catalyst for the introduction in Victoria of mandatory reporting of child abuse, which he recommended. From 2010 to 2012 he chaired the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry, producing a report of more than 700 pages in length and containing 90 recommendations.

That task done, Philip was appointed Chair of the Victorian Law Reform Commission in September 2012 and led the Commission over the course of some 16 inquiries. His leadership resulted in significant changes to Victorian law, including reviews of the role of victims of crime in the criminal trial process, the legalisation of medicinal cannabis, adoption by same-sex couples, and jury empanelment, among others.

In June 2014 Philip was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List as a Member of the Order of Australia, the citation reading “for significant service to the judiciary and to the law, to criminal justice and legal reform, to education, and to professional associations”.

That citation could not reveal the depth and width of that significant service. However, there can be no doubt, as the Attorney-General noted, that the state is poorer for Philip’s passing. His was a life of generosity, enthusiasm, achievement and love, and Philip’s legacy of public service is and will be a source of comfort for Maree, their family and Philip’s many close friends.

This is an edited extract of a eulogy given by the Hon Murray Kellam AO (LLM 1976).