What Frank did


Frank Costigan QCFrank Costigan, 14 January 1931–12 April 2009

I was privileged to read at the Melbourne Bar. I recall my first meeting with the Chairman, Francis Xavier Costigan QC. I wanted to do my reading during university vacation time while pursuing my theological studies.

Entering Frank's chambers, I was greeted by one who was completely at home at the Bar. I had entered his intellectual warren, the sanctuary of his conscience. He considered my request while casually drawing on his cigarette. For a moment I had a sense that my future was in the same balance as the spent ash on the precarious end of the cigarette.

He smiled gently and, with that characteristic glint in the eye, surmised that the problem, though unique, was not insuperable. He seemed to take some delight in paving the way for a Jesuit to come to the Bar, though briefly.

Some time later, I asked my friend Colin McDonald if I could squat in his chambers. Colin approached the Chairman who expressed gratitude for receiving notification from such junior counsel. Frank said, 'I had heard that you and the Reverend Brennan were thinking of co-habiting. Though it is not the usual practice, in fact a sinful practice usually frowned upon, I would be required to act only on receipt of a complaint. I can't imagine any member of the Bar lodging a complaint in such circumstances.'

He was a Chairman who knew, respected and always lived by the rules and mores of the Bar, while maintaining the common touch, common sense, and a wise perspective on the purpose and limits of rules and law — and always with a deft touch of humour.

Some years later Colin, who had moved to Darwin, was attending a legal conference in Bali. Frank was there too. Over a drink, Colin reflected that he was exhausted and broke after some years working in Aboriginal legal aid. Frank, having just completed his royal commission, drew on his cigarette and said, 'I know exactly how you feel, though mind you I am not broke'.

They circumnavigated Bali philosophising about the social utility of the law. This was the first of many overseas escapades by Frank in his post-commission days.

Last Thursday evening, I dined with Frank's family — Ruth and the children. Recalling Frank's favourite wines and dishes, we painted a picture of a man who was at home with his family and close friends, at the Bar, and in his Church (or at least the human face of that Church in its service of the poor and marginalised).

Back in the '70s as a senior barrister, Frank would tell his juniors how important it was to have empathy with the client for whom court was a novel, confronting experience. In the evenings, he would meet the parade of his children's new friends entering the family home. He once opined, 'I should get a mantle piece'. From the mantle piece, he thought he would be better positioned to quiz his children's new boyfriends and girlfriends.

He was one of those fathers who related easily to his children's friends, while finding it more difficult to express his love to his own children. His adult children are now agreed, 'We would create the vulnerability in him'. In later years they appreciated his capacity to convey unconditional love without ever saying it.

Some of the most important things in life are not in the brief, and are thus more difficult for the barrister to express. Frank's love for his children was infectious. Just ask his grandchildren about the love they receive from their own parents.

His commitment to social justice was a daily aspect of his life, especially once the Berlin Wall fell and he met Ruth — all on the one day. He once opined that he had a robust intelligence, as distinct from a fine one. He would have enjoyed the irony that it requires a fine intelligence to draw such a distinction.

Last week I was at a training day for the staff of Jesuit Social Services. Frank had served on the board for years. Chief Executive Julie Edwards told the staff that Frank was a man of such moral authority that you would not even need to speak to him. You need only ask yourself, 'What would Frank do?'

He was never judgmental; he could see all sides of any issue.

When Frank was being wheeled in for surgery on his brain tumour, he completed reading the morning papers and then waved to his own children, 'See ya!' He wanted everyone to be protected from his illness and to get on with their own lives.

In his memory, let's go committed afresh to family, friendship, the rule of law, and justice, especially for those on the margins. Let's carry the eternal image of Frank's smile, the glint in the eye, together with that precarious ash on the end of the cigarette. May he rest in peace, taken up in the hope and peace of resurrection.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ AO is a professor of law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University, and Chair of the National Human Rights Consultation. This text is excerpted from Fr Brennan's eulogy for Francis Xavier Costigan QC, at St Patrick's Cathedral, 20 April 2009. Full version here

Topic tags: frank brennan, eulogy, frank costigan, qc



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Existing comments

For one who did not know him, I had and have an envious and healthy respect of Frank Costigan and his intelligence, fairness and unrelenting sense of justice. Your article touched me. Thank you and thank you to Frank Costigan.
Mary Ann Buhagiar | 21 April 2009

A great tribute to a great man.
Ray Ham | 21 April 2009

Frank never changed much..he was the mainstay of a group of Catholic crusaders I formed in 1948 at St Pats. Paul Duffy was also a member...Costigan was the loving heart of the group of us...God love the man!
jim macken | 21 April 2009

A very nice piece. I am sorry I only get to know Frank Costigan a little after his death. .
Hugh Dillon | 21 April 2009


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