Cocaine and the law


Karen Kissane
May 19, 2007

PETER Hayes has long been known as a brilliant advocate. "He's an eloquent and beautifully spoken barrister," says fellow QC David Galbally. "His choice of words, the way he delivers, is very silky."

Hayes has also long been known as a moody man, volatile and irascible. Two years ago, a solicitor who had worked with Hayes decided that this was not just his temperament. In 2005 the solicitor made a formal complaint accusing Hayes of being "an inveterate cocaine user".

He asked the ethics committee of the Victorian Bar to have Hayes tested for drug use and suggested he be offered a psychiatric assessment.

In a letter that also claimed other erratic behaviour by Hayes, the lawyer wrote that the allegations were made solely with a view to protecting the public: "We have no joy or satisfaction in making these complaints."

The complaint was dismissed. The committee wrote that it was satisfied "the complaint was vexatious and lacking in substance your letters do not provide any objective, substantive or credible information to support your allegations. The material put before the committee amounts to nothing more than conjecture, assertion and innuendo."

At the time, that was the end of that. But the issue of white powder on black silk has resurfaced.

Hayes is lying critically ill in an Adelaide hospital. He was found naked and unconscious last Friday in a hotel room by the client he was in Adelaide to represent, a former member of the outlawed Gypsy Jokers bikie gang. Following a police investigation of Hayes' collapse, a young woman, reportedly a prostitute, is to be charged with having administered him a drug of dependence.

As Hayes' family hold vigil by his bedside, the Melbourne bar is hotly debating whether there is a serious cocaine problem in its ranks. There are also questions about how the bar should handle any such problems.

After his complaint about Hayes was rejected, the solicitor wrote another letter in which he said that if such a complaint had been made about a policeman, the policeman would have been drug tested. He claimed "(The bar) is more intent on protecting the 'reputation' of the bar than protecting the public".

The silk-circuit scuttlebutt about cocaine use has many colourful stories to which no source will put their name. Ask what is going on, and mellifluous voices murmur into the phone tales of the individual with a serious addiction (a barrister arriving in court with a bleeding nose); accounts of middle-class indulgence (dinner parties at which lines of coke are set out with the pre-dinner drinks); and stories at the outer edge of wildness (lurid parties with cocaine and callgirls).

Outspoken QC Peter Faris this week claimed that cocaine use was "rife" at the bar and had almost replaced alcohol as the recreational drug of choice in some circles. He acknowledged that he had never seen examples of it himself but said he had heard reports of "more than one" QC using cocaine.

A lawyer who did not want to be named told The Age: "I do know that senior lawyers use drugs. We go to restaurants in Melbourne or Sydney in Sydney it is much more prevalent with the top law firms and you sit there at the table and you use your credit card to cut the cocaine into nice little lines."

He said some lawyers used amphetamines at night and then used tranquillisers to bring themselves down before they appeared in court in the morning.

He put the drug use down to wealth: "We earn extraordinary amounts of money. It's not just lawyers, it's investment bankers and the corporate world, senior management and advertising. It's part of the culture of having whatever you want and having a good time. We are intellectual enough to be able to think about risks and we are able to afford to get the pure stuff."

The former wife of one barrister, who believes her marriage broke up several years ago because of his cocaine use, said it was partly about narcissism: "(You have) young men earning huge sums of money, top-shelf wine, top-shelf addresses and top-shelf coke; men with egos already in outer space."

She said the arrogance of the "barrister funster league" was astonishing: they worked within the law but felt free to break it. "They are blokes with rules for themselves that don't apply to anybody else."

Cocaine use in the law hit the headlines with the jailing in 2001 of Melbourne lawyer Andrew Fraser for possession and trafficking. In 2004, The Australian Financial Review reported that Fraser had been a member of the "Negroni Commission" (named after the cocktail), a fast-moving social group of about 20 people, mostly lawyers, who had Friday lunches involving cocaine and callgirls. Fraser's downfall was said to have scared many of them off cocaine use. Several of those people were reported to have advanced through the legal ranks, with some having become QCs.

Faris claimed this week that police had bugged Fraser's telephones and that tapes exist of him naming lawyers who were users.

Australian Federal Police sources this week told The Age that there were taped intercepts of a conversation between a "supergrass" and drug boss Tony Mokbel in which a Melbourne QC was named as someone using drugs. But the police also warned that the two parties having the conversation were unreliable witnesses.

Most of the senior legal figures contacted by The Age this week said they knew nothing of any drug use at the bar and were mystified or irritated by the claims. Said Lex Lasry, QC, of Faris' call for lawyers to be drug-tested like professional footballers: "I would have thought that before making a broad public allegation like that which, of course, does harm to the profession there might be some actual evidence rather than his vague, un-examinable anecdotes. I have been in the law for 34 years and I have never seen evidence of drug-taking nor been aware of it being prevalent and interfering with lawyers' ability to do their work."

Cocaine and callgirls are, in a way, private vices; the latter is not even illegal. Engaging a prostitute would not render a lawyer unfit to practise. Using cocaine would be a ground for complaint as it is illegal; if it were proved to be affecting a lawyer's performance, he could be suspended from practice immediately.

Those who dismiss the stories point out that so far, no lawyer has been reported to Legal Services Commissioner Victoria Marles over drug use.

They also argue that there is no evidence of barristers or silks appearing in court drug-affected, and that if there were, it would have been reported by dissatisfied clients, opposing barristers or judges.

David Galbally falls somewhere between the two opposing camps. He says he has never seen drug use himself but that drugs predominantly cocaine are a problem in the law, just as they are with sportsmen, industry, media and the professions.