Law Handbook Contributor Michael Clothier

Michael Clothier, long-time contributor to The Law Handbook, has had a long and interesting career. As he starts to wind back the hours he spends in the office, he takes some time to reflect on his career highlights.

In 1977, Michael ran his first and last jury trial. He was a very young solicitor representing a man who had been charged with causing death by culpable negligent driving. The man had finished his shift in the mines and was driving himself and his best friend home for the night. While driving, the man had polished off a bottle of whiskey and at some point he had veered off the road, crashing the car and killing his friend. Despite the drinking, Michael was able to persuade the Darwin jury that a buffalo might have wandered onto the road (his client suffered amnesia associated with head injuries). In the end, the jury wasn’t convinced beyond reasonable doubt that a buffalo hadn’t wandered onto the road and caused the accident and allowed the defendant to go free. After picking himself up from the courtroom floor, Michael decided he had reached the limits of his very average abilities as a jury lawyer and decided, for the sake of future clients, that he would no longer conduct jury trials and would in future brief a barrister.

Apart from enjoying a 100% success rate in front of juries, the other stand out moment for Michael was in 1985 when he and his legal aid team won a case in the High Court (Kioa v West (1985) 159 CLR 550; link) allowing a Tongan immigrant and his wife to remain in Australia with their Australian born daughter. It is still the leading case on the limits of natural justice and procedural fairness required of government decision makers.

Immigration law was something Michael accidentally fell into rather than consciously choosing it as a specialisation. In the late 1970’s he began work with the Australian Legal Aid Office which was a Federal funded body and was mainly concerned with federal law such as family law, repatriation law, social security law and immigration law. This was back in the days when there was a Federal Legal Aid office and a State Legal Aid office. As the area of immigration law grew, so did the work that Michael took on. Very few lawyers were practising immigration law at that time and so he just became the person with the most knowledge and experience. He eventually ended up grandfathering the Law Institute Specialist Accreditation in Immigration law and spent many years helping to examine other lawyers who wanted to be accredited specialists in the area. ‘I was able to avoid having to do the exam myself for seventeen years by volunteering to set it’ he jokes.

It was a natural choice then for Michael to write the Immigration Law chapters in The Law Handbook, a job that Michael has continued doing for over 30 years.

‘I was writing law for non-lawyers and I enjoyed doing that because every year I was trying to put into real language all the changes that had occurred during the year.’ Michael liked to pretend that people used The Law Handbook like they used to use the Encyclopedia Britannica, to resolve arguments over the dinner table. But the reality is that the book is a useful tool for people to find an overview about any legal topic.

Currently, Michael works in his own practice with law partner Karyn Anderson. Although this year, he’s dropped down to three days a week in an effort to ease into retirement. With his extra two days off, Michael has built himself a boat. He loves to work with his hands, building the (very) odd extension to the house when he can. The boat, unfortunately, hasn’t managed to stay in one piece. Every time he takes it out, it breaks. He has even had it blessed with holy water by an inebriated priest whom he invited to dinner. ‘They say you always build your best boat second,’ he jokes, ‘it’s a boat built by a lawyer.’

With his spare time Michael intends to keep building and hopes to travel a bit more, enjoying the ocean and drinking some wine. He’d like to remain practising long enough to move his eldest daughter’s admission. She’s currently in her final year of an Arts/Law degree at Monash University.