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Remembering Barry O'Keefe

Brian Lucas |  28 April 2014

headshot of Barry O'Keefe

I first met Barry O'Keefe in the early 1970s in the course of the Sydney Law School annual mooting competition. Members of the Bar and the Bench volunteered to act as judges, as two teams of two argued for and against some esoteric proposition of law, in a make believe appellate forum. Barry was assigned as our judge. 

Although the arrangements allowed for about 20 minutes for each presentation more than two hours had passed and Barry was still not finished with the second submission. Eventually the security person arrived to put out the lights.

Barry invited us to pack up notes and books and the four of us, with the few spectators who had persevered, retired across Philip Street and squeezed into his chambers. After midnight he finished by dictating a detailed judgment. His generosity, enthusiasm, and the keen interest he took in using the occasion to help us learn the law made a deep impression on me.

Barry was among the best known barristers of his time and no doubt there will be many tributes to his prowess as advocate, judge and corruption commissioner. 

He was a man of simple and deep faith. That was the context in which I came to know him better during my 16 years at St Mary's Cathedral, usually rostered for the 6.45 am Mass, which suited a bureaucrat's daily routine. He was there most days. He did the reading on Fridays.

The integration of the spiritual life and professional career is a challenge for most people. How do you find stillness and God's presence when there are constant demands on your time and energy? Barry told me that his attendance at daily Mass was important so he could find the time to know and love God.

One of Barry's judgments, which stands as a major contribution to the ethical issues at the end of life, was the case of Northridge v Central Sydney Area Health Service. In two paragraphs he set out succinctly principles that accord with the law and sound ethical practice.

23 The law in Australia is well settled that it is lawful for, and the duty of, a hospital which or doctor who has undertaken the care of a patient who is unconscious, to carry out such treatment as is necessary and appropriate to safeguard the life, health and welfare of that patient, even though such patient is in no position to give or refuse consent to the course taken.

24 There is undoubted jurisdiction in the Supreme Court of New South Wales to act to protect the right of an unconscious person to receive ordinary reasonable and appropriate (as opposed to extra-ordinary, excessively burdensome, intrusive or futile) medical treatment, sustenance and support. In this day and age ordinary reasonable and appropriate treatment, for a person of the age and condition of Mr Thompson, would extend to the administration of antibiotics and appropriate feeding. The court also has jurisdiction to prevent the withdrawal of such treatment, support and sustenance where the withdrawal may put in jeopardy the life, good health or welfare of such unconscious individual. What constitutes appropriate medical treatment in a given case is a medical matter in the first instance. However, where there is doubt or serious dispute in this regard the court has the power to act to protect the life and welfare of the unconscious person.

For the past 18 months Barry has chaired the Truth Justice and Healing Commission for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia. His wise counsel will be missed.

On 1 February 2002, the morning after my father Wally had died, at the end of the 6.45 Mass, Barry spontaneously stood up. He said that he would like on behalf of those present to offer condolences. He then invited everyone to join with him as he recited by heart the Memorare. The faithful might like to pray the prayer now for the repose of the soul of the Hon Barry O'Keefe QC.

Brian Lucas headshotBrian Lucas is general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and these are his personal views. 



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Submitted comments

Brian, this is a beautiful piece in honour of a clearly wonderful man. Your question, "How do you find stillness and God's presence when there are constant demands on your time and energy?", is such an important one. The Mass obviously worked in Barry's case and I am sure it had a profound affect on the quality of his work and outside life. I am blessed to work for a health care organisation which attempts to integrate spirituality with work and it is such a privilege to be part of this new and emerging "church" where people of all backgrounds share their inner callings and make 'spiritual connections" between themselves, the organisation's mission and their roles.

Martin Loney 29 April 2014

As Chaplain to Christian Brothers commuities, I met Barry O'Keefe after ministering Last Rites to a former Waverley College class mate, and weeks later at the Diamond Jubilee of his friend and teacher Brother Marzorini CFC. After the celebrations Barry graciously offered me a lift home. Barry joined class reunions behind school desks as with much laughter Brother Mazorini regailed them with blackboard and chalk as in years past[Brother also taught Barry's younger brother Johnny O'Keefe(1935–1978), Australian rock and roll singer [ Barry was indeed a man of Faith, as well noted by Father Lucas!]

Father John George 30 April 2014

May Justice Barry O'Keefe, as he stands before Christ and his Blessed Mother be welcomed with his reward of Eternal Life for his devotion to the Mass and Our Lady. Barry, taught by the Christian Brothers at Our Lady's Mount Waverley like myself, would have recited the Litany of Our Lady and Memorare every day at 3pm - a practice, unfortunately, rarely observed in schools today ... more's the pity. Each class at Waverley commenced with the Hail Mary such was the devotion to Our Lady fostered and engendered by the Christian Brothers at Our Lady's Mount. I maintained the practice of greeting Our Lady and praying for her assistance with class prayer of the Hail Mary throughout a long teaching career. R.I.P. Barry O'Keefe who entered Eternal Life in 2014 - much loved, admired, respected and remembered as a fine outstanding Catholic, jurist, lawyer and exemplary 'Old Boy' of Waverley College - Our Lady's Mount Waverley.

Terry Fitzgerald 30 April 2014

Thank you Terry for your most edifying post!

Father John George 30 April 2014

Thanks Fr Brian, I always remember Barry attending your 6-45 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral even when he was head of ICAC and had his driver parked outside waiting for him.

Quentin Schneider 03 November 2016

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