The pioneer of class action litigation in South Australia has quit the law.
After more than four decades practising, in Mt Gambier then Adelaide, Peter Humphries has retired, much to the surprise of many fellow practitioners.
Some believe Humphries’ retirement is a mere pause in his working life. Still sharp and fit, and about to embark upon an extended European sojourn with wife Kate, he is expected by a number of friends and peers to come back to Adelaide, enjoy Christmas, then seek a new career. In politics.
In the mid-’80s he was the unsuccessful ALP candidate for the seat of Mt Gambier, and hasn’t flirted with a switch from courtroom to parliament since. But it’s known he’s spoken with Nick Xenophon about a tilt at the Legislative Council in 2018.
“I’ve made no commitment, but I’m open to it,” Humphries told InDaily.
“Nick and I get on very well.”
Humphries said he “very much doubted” that he’d entertain an approach from either the Labor or Liberal parties to stand in their colours. But he’s well-credentialed for a red leather seat and, should he run at the next state election in a winnable position on the NXT Legislative Council ticket, could look forward to eight years of public service before his next retirement.
Xenophon told InDaily Humphries “would be an outstanding advocate in parliament, whether working with me or as an independent”.
“He’s a hell of a good lawyer with a down-to-earth intellect, and a formidable negotiator – which would be good qualities in any parliament,” he said.
“He’s still got a good 15 years left in him of [public] service.”
I’ve only ever been on the side of the underdog
Often referred to as “Hollywood Humphries” by other lawyers, he’s been regarded as a brash upstart by the extensive conservative wing of the legal profession, particularly for his use of publicity in the promotion of his firm.
Not only was Duncan Basheer Hannon the first law firm in the state to advertise, but Humphries has been an astute – and regular – information feeder to media outlets, particularly print and television, where he’s often appeared.
Unlike most lawyers, he’s been happy to provide evidence to reporters, and to visit television stations for interviews. This media cooperation has served his clients well and boosted DBH’s public profile.
It’s also true that he’s been much in demand from media outlets, particularly in relation to class action cases. From the faulty breast implants of the early 1990s and dodgy replacement hips, to the Spin Dragon accident, Families SA – “they’re hopeless!” – and numerous child abuse cases, Humphries has taken on causes that have drawn wide public attention.
He’s investigated and taken on the Catholic Church, the Anglicans and the Salvation Army, as well as representing the families of victims of St Ann’s special school bus driver Brian Perkins – a case he describes as “a whole other level of depravity”.
When he turned his attention to wards of the state who’d been abused, the tide became such a torrent it led to the State Government establishing a Commission of Inquiry under the command of retired Supreme Court justice Ted Mullighan. Such was the level of trust and respect between the judge and Humphries that they regularly referred witnesses/clients to each other.
Humphries became managing partner of DBH in 2004. Since then, the firm’s revenue and staffing level has trebled.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” he says of his life in the law. “I’ve only ever been on the side of the underdog.”
And as a final example of that, he cites a case from the 1980s, when a Ballarat potato farmer was fined $15,000 in South Australia for packing his spuds in irregular-sized bags. In a move usually reserved for murder cases, Humphries petitioned the Governor for clemency, meaning it had to be referred to Executive Council (the Governor plus senior cabinet ministers).
Then-Agriculture minister Frank Blevins declared the penalty ridiculous and waived the fine.
“That’s the role, to look after individuals against institutions and corporations,” Humphries reflects.
“It’s really the only sort of work I’ve ever done.”
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