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Judge McGill SC goes out in a blaze of glory in appeal decision

Judge John McGill SC has been a stalwart of the District Court for over 20 years. His final judgment, an appeal against a decision of Magistrate Suzette Coates, has made him leave the bench with a bang and not a whimper.

Judge John McGill SC

Those who are familiar with civil litigation in the Magistrates Court know that it is an unfortunate reality that occasionally litigants will receive “rough justice”. This is often due to the lack of knowledge of civil litigation and/or the flippant attitudes of some Magistrates. This observation in no way is intended to criticise the vast majority of Queensland Magistrates, who are conscientious and serve their state well.

The facts

The Plaintiff sued the Defendants in the Magistrates Court for the repayment of monies pursuant to an alleged loan agreement in 2013.

On the morning of trial on 27 August 2019, Magistrate Coates struck out a number of paragraphs in the statement of claim, gave directions for an amended statement of claim to be filed by the plaintiff, and adjourned the matter for mention before herself on 18 September 2019. On that day she awarded costs which she assessed at a figure of over $15,000 to the defendants, gave directions for amended pleadings by the defendant and for filing of affidavit evidence, and listed the matter for trial for one day on 2 December 2019. She also disqualified herself from hearing the matter.

In addition to using infelicitous language and “demonstrating her general attitude of petulant bullying”, Magistrate Coates made a number of incorrect legal assertions, including the following:

  •  – That a Court cannot hear and determine a claim if the limitation period has expired;
  •  – “Equitable compensation is not available in the Magistrates Court… there is absolutely no power for a magistrate to make any order for equitable relief”;
  •  – That for a contract, “A promise is not consideration”; and
  •  – That the Magistrates Court had no jurisdiction to award exemplary damages.

 

Judge McGill SC’s decision

After pointing out the above errors and making scathing observations of Magistrate Coates’ conduct, Judge McGill SC made some biting conclusions.

On Magistrate Coates’ knowledge of the law:

“Indeed, so far as I have noticed, every proposition of law stated by the magistrate during the two days was wrong. Magistrates cannot be expected to have the same degree of legal expertise as High Court judges, or even as District Court judges, but it is reasonable to expect that they will know some law.”

On costs:

“On costs, the only way to do true justice to the parties would be to order that the costs of the appeal, and all of the costs of the proceedings in the Magistrates Court on 27 August and 18 September 2019, be paid by Magistrate Coates personally, but I cannot in law make such an order.”

Conclusion

Appointed a Judge of the District Court on 9 September 1996, Judge McGill SC is one of those leading District Court judges who was unlucky not to be promoted to the Supreme Court in his career of erudite judgments. His final judgement is of the usual legal quality, but its sharp observations about the judicial officer below are not typical of a Judge who has usually been restrained in his own language. That does make this final hurrah a particularly riveting read.

Sterling Law wishes Judge McGill SC a very pleasant and engaging retirement. His fine legal mind and wise words from the bench will be sorely missed.

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