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Des Sturgess and the NT Criminal Code

I thought I should write because I recently read a review of a biography of the late Des Sturgess QC.

There was no mention, that I could see, of the leading role Des played in the formulation of the Northern Territory Criminal Code.

When I first went to Alice Springs in 1966, to find myself in an amalgamated profession, I was quickly pressed into service at the Bar. Within a few days I was appearing in my first criminal trial on behalf of an offender charged with, of all things, buggery.

Imagine my surprise to hear the associate read out to the court the Indictment which ended with the words: “You stand charged…with the abominable crime of buggery, not to be mentioned amongst Christians, contrary to Section 71 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act and Ordinance of 1867.”

It was apparent to me there and then that the Northern Territory was lagging. So when we attained self-government 12 years later in 1978, one of our first priorities was to follow the examples of Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland and reform the criminal law into a code.

Looking for someone to lead our team working on the codification and seeking to be perhaps a little bit ahead of the curve, we agreed probably only one person who could provide the guiding hand and lead our team was the late Des Sturgess, who cheerfully agreed to take on the task. Of course he was supported by staff within the Department of Law, including Graeme Nicholson and others as well as the NT Law Society and the legal profession generally.

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On and off Des was probably involved in the project for a couple of years until it finally came to fruition. I should also say that he insisted on charging only his usual modest rate of remuneration despite being urged otherwise.

During the considerable period of time over the years that Des spent toing and froing between Brisbane and Darwin, Des made many friends in the Territory with his gentle, unassuming manner. If anyone ever deserved to have an ego it was Des Sturgess, but he never displayed it.

I would suggest that the Northern Territory Criminal Code is Des Sturgess’ major contribution to Australian law reform and I thought it proper that I bring this to your readers’ attention so that it is recognised.

Paul Everingham is a partner, solicitor and company director at Everingham Lawyers.

This story was originally published in Proctor April 2020.

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