Justice David Levine: thanks for a decade of service

By Kate Erman, currently Justice Levine’s Tipstaff and a volunteer at Arts Law.

When I mentioned to a senior barrister that I worked for Justice Levine, his immediate response was to describe him as “liberal and fair-minded”. In times where the media commonly puts forward a negative perception of judges, Justice Levine encapsulates all the admirable qualities one would expect in a judge.

The son of Judge Aaron and Libbie Levine, the Hon. Justice David Daniel Levine RFD1 was born on the 12 October 1944.

A classics scholar, he was a student at North Sydney Boys’ High School and completed an Arts/Law degree the University of Sydney.

After two years as a solicitor Justice Levine was admitted to the NSW Bar in 1971, specialising in defamation.  His success at the Bar was prodigious.  One lawyer recalls seeing the young barrister in court in the days when the Defamation List was presided over by Mr Justice Hunt. There, on the left-hand side of the bar table sat Mr Levine, as he then was, for Fairfax Publications, fortnight after fortnight, with “a huge pile of briefs that you couldn’t jump over”.

He became a Queens Counsel in 1984.  Around this time there had been a change in the way the major publishers were distributing their work in the Supreme Court, with the steady flow of Fairfax work now being more closely held onto by the legal firms that were instructed and the briefs now being spread out among 10 or so barristers.

While the likes of Fairfax’s young “top gun” counsel was not to be seen again in the Defamation List, as a silk at Blackstone Chambers he did not have to wait very long to build up his practice. With his wealth of experience and knowledge he was soon called to the bench and, like his father Judge Aaron Levine, he was appointed a Judge of the District Court of NSW where he remained from 1987 to 1992.

Justice Levine was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW in 1992. Within a few years he took over the Defamation List from Mr Justice Hunt and was to run it for the next 9 or so years.

His presiding over the List saw dramatic changes in defamation law – both in the way the list was conducted and in a substantive sense. The tort of defamation was hitherto not only cast in iron but was terribly confusing – practitioners and judicial officers alike bemoaned the “labyrinthine complexities” of defamation law in NSW.2

But with Justice Levine at the helm the law of defamation was liberated. Generally less formal and strict in the application of the Defamation Act, particularly in respect of the defences available, he had some fresh ideas. Justice Levine’s common-sense approach to the law in essence reflects his preoccupation with the due administration of justice and the efficient and fair resolution of disputes.

Over the years Justice Levine has presided over many very controversial cases – the most notorious of which was that of Marsden v Amalgamated Television Services. That case ran for two and a half years and was peppered with 212 or so interlocutory judgments, many of which have been influential on the future course of defamation law. Not one to allow the strain of Australia’s longest-running defamation case get the better of him, Justice Levine was famously quoted as stating: “I am presently presiding over a defamation trial – and I use those words advisedly”.

His mischievous sense of humour is not however confined to trial transcripts. In the recent judgment of Sleeman, Justice Levine, with reference to Ian Thorpe’s appearance as a witness wearing a striking white suit, observed that “the most unremarkable thing about Mr Thorpe’s coming to court to give evidence was his evidence itself”.3 Justice Levine’s sharp wit no doubt goes some way in alleviating the often “excruciating and sterile technicalities” of the law.4

Another means by which Justice Levine seeks solace from the law is his keen interest in the arts. Not only a collector of fine visual art pieces, the Judge also supports the local music scene (the hip group Monsieur Camembert has a special place in his record collection). Indeed, his commitment to the Arts Law Centre is testament to this passion for the arts. He has up until recent times been President of the Arts Law Centre, and since 1995 has watched over the Centre’s continuing efforts towards artistic and cultural achievement.

In addition to his work for Arts Law, Justice Levine is also Chairman of the Friends of the State Library of NSW. His own personal library is famously one of the largest in Australia. Asked if he had read every book in his collection, the answer was a resounding “Yes”. Alongside the obligatory volumes of law reports and loose-leaf services are history books, biographies, philosophy books, art books… in essence the library reflects the Judge’s wide-ranging interests and formidable intellect.

Justice Levine however is no intellectual elitist. He would be quite comfortable in a banana chair reading a John le Carre novel, or watching a game of his much-loved baseball (he is an enthusiastic fan of the Boston Redsox). And while he is very much at ease talking about a Brett Whitely work and quoting Yeats or Byron, he’d much rather have a meat pie instead of sushi, a black tea instead of a latte – compelling testimony to the fact that he is a man of the people.

The privilege of having had the opportunity of working for Justice Levine has been memorable not only for the insights into our justice system. I’ll have many fond memories of my time with the Judge, foremost of which would have to be the many generous gestures such as taking his associate and myself out to lunch to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Justice Levine lives with his wife while their three children have followed professional careers across Europe and the US, all of them successes in their chosen fields. Though he misses not having them here he keeps in touch via email, and delights in hearing their news. As he shares his pride of having his daughters march on Washington for women’s right to choose, or the admiration he felt for his son who completed the New York Marathon, it is obvious that he is very much the doting father.

Despite pleas from the legal community Justice Levine will be retiring as a Judge of the Supreme Court in March 2005.   He will be sadly missed and the profession would sincerely hope to see his return as an acting Judge.


1. “Reserve Force Decoration” – awarded after 15 years of service in the Royal Australian Navy Reserve

2. Renouf v Federal Capital Press of Australia Pty Ltd (1997) ACTR 35 at 58 per Blackburn J

3. Sleeman v Nationwide News Pty Ltd [2004] NSWSC 954 at para 68

4. To quote from a speech given by Justice Levine entitled “The Future of Defamation Law” on the occasion of the publication of the first issue of the UTS Law School Law Review, 31 August 1999, at para 9:

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