Peter Heerey reviews 'Old Law, New Law' by Keith Mason

The practice of the law is about stories. The stories the parties tell to the judge, the story the judge tells back or, if you like, the judge’s review of the parties’ stories. Along the way there can be much that is frankly boring to onlookers, or indeed the parties themselves, but also drama, pathos, and humour, both intentional and the opposite. And past cases can give us revealing glimpses into the social and historical context of the times.

Keith Mason, formerly President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal, has expertly mined the vast Pilbara of Australian legal stories to produce an entertaining and thought-provoking second volume of legal miscellany.

Some anecdotes are well worn, with multiple attributions, like the judge saying to counsel, ‘I am much the wiser for your submission’ and counsel riposting ‘Not wiser perhaps, but better informed’. Mason quotes Clive James’s observation that a clever remark may ‘float upwards until it attaches itself to someone sufficiently famous’.

Others have a spontaneous human charm, like the ‘wily old lady ducking and weaving in cross-examination’. Finally, exasperated counsel said: ‘Look Mrs X. It is a simple question. The answer must be yes or no.’ She smiled at him and said: ‘Yes or no.’

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Published in August 2015, no. 373