Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Farquhar, Murray Frederick (1918–1993)

by Hilary Golder

This article was published online in 2017

Murray Frederick Newton Farquhar (1918–1993), chief magistrate, was born on 7 July 1918 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, son of South Australian-born Elsie Victoria Ethel Farquhar; his father is unknown. Elsie and her son lived with her mother and brothers in the Railway Town district of Broken Hill. They were a working-class family, but Broken Hill High School opened up new opportunities for Murray. After leaving school in 1935, he won a scholarship to Sydney Teachers’ College, where he was briefly enrolled before joining the State public service in 1936, and securing a coveted berth in the petty sessions branch of the Department of the Attorney-General and of Justice. Starting work as a junior clerk in the Broken Hill Court of Petty Sessions, he set out on a career path that would eventually lead to appointment as a magistrate.

War interrupted Farquhar’s progress. On 25 June 1940 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 2/48th Infantry Battalion, he saw action at Tobruk, Libya, and El Alamein, Egypt. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in January 1943, and returned to Australia later that year. In New Guinea (August 1943-March 1944), he was active in campaigns at Lae, Finschhafen, and Sattelberg. He served at Tarakan, Borneo (April-September 1945), before transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 13 October 1945 with the rank of major. He later wrote Derrick, V. C. (1982), a biography of Tom Derrick, his comrade in their battle-hardened unit. While on leave in Adelaide, on 30 December 1944 he had married South Australian-born Dorothy Hilda Hunt at Scots Church. They separated in the early 1980s.

After the war Farquhar began a series of postings as a clerk of petty sessions at Wentworth, Narromine, and Cootamundra, punctuated by a stint as deposition clerk at Sydney’s Central Court of Petty Sessions. Promotion to the magistracy had traditionally depended on this kind of apprenticeship, which also involved internal public service examinations, but ambitious officers like Farquhar anticipated that legal qualifications would soon be required. Studying after hours, he qualified as a solicitor in November 1958.

Following secondment to the Public Solicitor’s Office, and appointments as a clerk of petty sessions at the busy courts of Kogarah, Newtown, Redfern, and Central, Farquhar was appointed as a stipendiary magistrate in April 1962. He later completed a graduate diploma in criminology from the University of Sydney (1968). Farquhar was also active in the Citizen Military Forces. In July 1953 he had joined the 4th infantry battalion. He was appointed assistant adjutant general of the 1st division and promoted to lieutenant colonel in March 1963. Appointed OBE in 1967, he retired on 7 January 1969. This story of the Broken Hill boy made good was crowned by his appointment as chairman of the bench of stipendiary magistrates in March 1971.

In the early 1970s Farquhar’s reputation was high: the Askin coalition government considered appointing him to the District Court bench. He improved the administration of the local courts and took several progressive initiatives, including encouraging Sydney magistrates to refer arrested alcoholics and vagrants to welfare agencies and participating in developing pre-sentence diversion programs for drink-drivers and drug users. This approach was consistent with the policies of the Wran Labor government that was elected in 1976, and in August 1977 he was appointed chairman of its interim Drug and Alcohol Authority.

But there were rumours that Farquhar’s gambling habit, developed as a teenager in Broken Hill, exposed him to Sydney’s criminal milieu. In 1978 the National Times revealed that the magistrate, a member of the Australian Jockey Club, had secured a ticket to the members’ enclosure at Randwick for George Freeman, named in parliament as an ‘organised crime figure’ (Clark 1978, 8). A photograph later emerged, showing a smiling Farquhar sitting near Freeman. The Justice department and the Public Service Board investigated discreetly but found that, despite the damaging publicity, Farquhar had committed no offence under public service legislation. Nudged by the authorities and driven by his own ill health, he eventually retired in May 1979.

Rumours persisted that Farquhar had misused his position as chairman of the bench, which carried considerable patronage and power over other magistrates. In 1983 the whispers became a roar when the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Four Corners program broadcast allegations that Farquhar had interfered, at the request of Premier Neville Wran, in committal proceedings against Kevin Humphreys in August 1977. Humphreys, then president of the New South Wales Rugby Football League, had been accused of defrauding the Balmain Leagues Club, where he was secretary-manager. Chief Justice Sir Laurence Street conducted a royal commission to investigate. He concluded that Farquhar, who was described by a colleague as ‘overbearing’ (New South Wales, Transcript 1983, 107), had insisted that magistrate Kevin Jones hear the case and had pressured him not to commit Humphreys. Street found no evidence that Wran was involved, although Farquhar had invoked ‘the Premier.’ Nor did Street establish Farquhar’s motive; he could only suggest that pressure might have come from Freeman, from whom Farquhar regularly solicited racing tips. Street noted that the magistrate had been ‘deliberately evasive’ about this relationship (New South Wales, Report 1983, 59). The chief justice did not ask whether Farquhar’s intervention in the Humphreys case was part of a pattern of behaviour.

In March 1985 Farquhar was convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice and sentenced to four years imprisonment. Even before this conviction his career was being viewed through the prism of an escalating corruption debate. In 1984 the Age had published front-page stories based on transcripts of illegal police surveillance tapes; these revealed connections between criminals, police, politicians, and the judiciary. Farquhar was mentioned in the transcripts. In this climate his liberal attitudes to punishment and rehabilitation were discounted or discredited. His judgments were scrutinised and some appeared decidedly questionable as attention focused on matters that had been excluded from the Street royal commission because of its narrow terms of reference. In 1979, for example, Farquhar had decided a drug importation case, which should have gone to a higher court, but came before him because the police considerably reduced the value of the drugs. He gave the defendants, Roy Cessna and Tim Milner, light penalties, which contradicted his stated approach of leniency for drug users and stringency for drug traffickers. The Cessna-Milner case raised questions about Farquhar’s relationships with other figures who had been featured in the Age, especially the defendants’ solicitor, Morgan Ryan. Certainly Farquhar’s successor, Clarrie Briese, became convinced that Farquhar had been implicated in corrupt networks of influence.

On his release in 1986 Farquhar attempted to vindicate himself with a self-published account of the Humphreys affair, Nine Words from the Grave. He survived reports that new charges could be laid against him over the Cessna-Milner case, but subsequent events in his life were increasingly bizarre. In 1991 he was back in court, charged with knowingly possessing paintings stolen from the Melbourne home of the millionaire Samuel Smorgon. He was acquitted, the jury apparently accepting his story that he bought the paintings after meeting a man in a pub, and was shocked to find they were stolen. Farquhar was immediately committed for trial on another charge, that of conspiring to obtain false passports. When the trial finally began in November 1993 the prosecution asserted that the passports were to be used to enter the Philippines, where conspirators planned to remove gold bars from the Central Bank under cover of a coup against President Corazon Aquino. The prosecution claimed Farquhar helped to plan and finance this escapade, while he claimed to be the victim of an elaborate confidence trick.

Farquhar did not live to hear a verdict. A diabetic with a history of stroke and cardiac arrest, he died on 3 December 1993 at Randwick and was cremated. His son and daughter survived him. Gregarious and self-confident, he was at times insensitive. In obituaries his early achievements as a reforming magistrate were overshadowed by his criminal conviction, the later charges, and unresolved questions about corrupt connections.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bottom, Bob. ‘A Man from Both Sides of the Bench.’ Australian, 6 December 1993, 13
  • Clark, Andrew. ‘The Chief Magistrate and the Racing Ticket.’ National Times, 6–11 March 1978, 8
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 2149147
  • New South Wales. Royal Commission. Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Committal Proceedings Against K. E. Humphreys. Sydney: Government Printer, 1983
  • New South Wales. Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Committal Proceedings Against K. E. Humphreys: Transcript of Proceedings. Sydney: Government Printer, 1983
  • Sutton, Candace, and Steve Warnock. ‘The Fall from Grace.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 5 December 1993, 16
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Gambling Led to the Ruin of Magistrate.’ 7 December 1993, 6
  • Whitton, Evan. ‘Farquhar: A Burly Man Who Keeps a Low Profile.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 12 May 1983, 2

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Citation details

Hilary Golder, 'Farquhar, Murray Frederick (1918–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/farquhar-murray-frederick-18242/text29834, published online 2017, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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