By Keith Mason and Geoffrey Watson, originally published on the 22nd of December.
DAVID IPP: 1938 – 2020
David Ipp was a jurist, law reformer and corruption fighter whose term as Commissioner at ICAC was explosive. Under his guidance ICAC opened inquiries into some of the worst corruption in NSW history. He led an inquiry into corruption allegations concerning the process relating to the supply of security services to several NSW public authorities and into allegations involving businessman Michael McGurk who was murdered in a contract killing.
David Ipp was born in Johannesburg in 1938, the son of a shopkeeper. He was a mediocre student whose ambition was to play cricket for South Africa. Childhood polio squashed that. His recuperation introduced him to the world of books, including popular accounts of great legal trials. His father wanted him to become an accountant, but Ipp went into the law with the hope of becoming a barrister.
He studied at Stellenbosch, where lectures were delivered in Afrikaans, a language with which he was unfamiliar. He mastered the language and the law, graduating with honours. His time in Stellenbosch was important for another reason: it was there he met Erina, a fellow student and the woman he was to marry.
At the time of his graduation South Africa’s apartheid regime was at its oppressive worst. Ipp could not stomach it. He travelled to London with the idea of migrating, but returned to South Africa for Erina.
Ipp entered practice with a leading law firm in Johannesburg. His “master” solicitors were hard and austere men – junior solicitors were punished if their drafting contained an adverb or an unnecessary adjective. If David Ipp described a fellow lawyer as demanding, then they must have been tough.
After a few years Ipp commenced practise as a barrister in Cape Town. There was little work available, and the established barristers erected all kinds of impediments to discourage newcomers. Ipp gained a foothold and within a few years he had become a leader in the fields of commercial law and Admiralty. He developed a national practice, regularly appearing in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Durban.
On the surface it looked as though things could not be better. Ipp had a lucrative practice; he and Erina had produced three children and lived in comfortable circumstances. But there were other problems. Ipp could not bear the apartheid. He accepted briefs defending indigent black people who had been charged with capital offences, many of them school-aged.
This move was neither politically popular nor financially savvy. Successes brought the attention of the State Security. Enough was enough, and Ipp and Erina made the difficult decision to emigrate to Perth and start again.
In 1981 Ipp took up a partnership in the establishment firm of Parker & Parker. He moved to the private Bar and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1985. Ipp was briefed in all of the big cases of the day, and again had built a lucrative practice.
In 1989 he accepted an appointment to the Supreme Court of Western Australia – even though it came at considerable financial cost.
Immediately Ipp introduced muscular methods of case management. The local profession was stunned. Tight timetables were set, and non-compliance was punished. Chief Justice David Malcolm described Ipp as a “mover and shaker”; the local profession used other language.
During his time on the Supreme Court he sat across the many areas within the jurisdiction of that court – crime, civil disputes, administrative law and even equity. The field of law known as equity is foreign to a Dutch Roman lawyer – Ipp used to joke that when he heard other practitioners speak of “equity” he thought they were referring to an insurance company. Despite that, Ipp mastered the field and delivered famous judgments.
Ipp was always restless and looking for new challenges. In 2001 he was asked to set up a Court of Appeal in Western Australia – with a loose offer that he would be appointed its first President. Upon hearing of this, the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Jim Spigelman, invited Ipp to sit as an acting judge in New South Wales – there is little doubt Spigelman did this with the intention of luring Ipp permanently to the East.
The experiment was a huge success. Ipp loved the environment in the NSW Court of Appeal. He enjoyed the company of the other judges and later said that upon coming to Sydney he made the best friends of his life.
Ipp was a dynamic force. He produced complex judgments with remarkable speed – his intention was to produce a draft judgment for circulation within one week of the hearing. Often those judgments became the judgment of the Court. He headed a section of the Court nicknamed “the Panzer Division” for its ability to cut through urgent and complex cases.
Ipp wrote high quality judgments covering every conceivable field of law. The spread of his legal knowledge was extraordinary. It was not just “black letter” law [well-established legal rules]: he had an instinctive approach to policy and development of the law. His judicial colleagues and those who appeared before him were in awe of his abilities.
Speaking of those appeared before him, many will recall the bruising encounters they suffered while Ipp was on the bench. There is no doubt that he could be demanding. Poorly prepared or loose arguments were hammered. But he was never belittling or mean, and could be kind to the inexperienced or those carrying a difficult brief.
In 2002 Ipp was appointed by the federal government to carry out a wide-ranging inquiry into the tort law system – which was perceived to be functioning poorly. Ipp chaired a committee which masterfully surveyed the existing law, suggesting changes better to serve social policy. All Australian governments have introduced changes based upon recommendations made by the “Ipp Committee”. Even so, Ipp was left unsatisfied believing the implementation of the reforms had been bungled by the legislators.
Then in 2009 Ipp made yet another career change, accepting an appointment at the Independent Commission Against Corruption. He was a perfect choice: an outsider with no political affiliations.
Ipp’s term as Commissioner at ICAC was explosive. Under his guidance ICAC opened inquiries into some of the worst corruption in NSW history. Investigations and public hearings were conducted forcefully and speedily. NSW is a better place as a result of Ipp’s period at ICAC.
But his work had a backlash, making him powerful and wealthy enemies. He was sued by members of the Obeid family – but their case was booted out with the trial judge describing the allegations as “unjustifiable” and “unmaintainable and irresponsibly made”. The Obeids were ordered to pay Ipp’s costs on an indemnity basis.
Ipp left ICAC in 2013. In a busy semi-retirement he conducted several inquiries, including in relation to the attempted murder of Tony Mokbel. He remained tireless in his anti-corruption work, founding the Centre for Public Integrity, and he relentlessly pressured federal politicians to create a national integrity commission. He found the inaction on that disturbing.
Ipp was extraordinarily well-read and had a wide knowledge outside the law – his special interests were politics, government, history and science. Conversations with David Ipp were always engaging, deep and challenging. And he loved to laugh – and when he laughed it was with a loud, braying, infectious laugh. His company was sought after and treasured.
Typically, Ipp wanted no fanfare once he was gone. He wanted no funeral nor other memorial, and he was cremated in a private service. His ashes are scattered in Centennial Park, where he loved to walk.
His is survived by Erina, his wife of 56 years, children Graeme, Tessa and Stephen and four grandchildren.
Keith Mason and Geoffrey Watson