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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roach, Philip Norman (1896–1982)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Philip Norman Roach (1896-1982), solicitor, was born on 9 February 1896 at Bundaberg, Queensland, youngest of seven children of Irish-born parents James Roach, labourer, later publican, and his wife Bridget, née Casey. A boarder at St Joseph’s College, Nudgee, Brisbane, in 1910-14, Phil was a good rugby union player. After serving articles with Edgar James Brennan at Warwick, he was admitted as a solicitor on 7 December 1921 and set up practice in Brisbane in partnership with James Joseph Desmond. In 1924 Roach was charged with issuing a valueless cheque and failing to appear at Townsville Police Court. He was discharged on both counts. On 29 October 1925 Roach was admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales. He married May Gowen on 8 September 1926 at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, South Brisbane. After practising in Taree in 1926-27, he moved to Sydney. Although declared bankrupt in 1935, he was allowed to continue in practice and the order of sequestration was annulled in 1944.

For more than fifty years Roach practised as a solicitor from offices in Castlereagh Street, assisted by his chief clerk John Halligan and later by Brian Alexander. He specialised in criminal cases and defended some of Sydney’s most notorious figures, including Kate Leigh, Darcy Dugan and Dulcie Markham, ‘the angel of death’, eight of whose lovers were shot dead. Although not a barrister, he often appeared for the defendant in criminal trials. At his chief stamping ground, Central Court of Petty Sessions, Liverpool Street, on most Monday mornings from the 1930s to the 1970s, he appeared for prostitutes charged with soliciting. He would plead guilty on their behalf, for which his clerk would receive from each a fee of £5 ($10), being the amount remaining from the refunded bail after payment of the fine. In the 1950s he acted for the fraudster Reginald Aubrey Doyle. Roach instructed senior counsel in major jury trials, such as that of Shirley Beiger, acquitted of murder in November 1954, when he briefed J. W. Shand. Next year he travelled to London, where he instructed Shand and J. P. Slattery in an unsuccessful application to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for leave to appeal in the famous adoption case Mace v. Murray.

Roach was one of Sydney’s ‘most colourful criminal lawyers’. Evan Whitton described him as a ‘legendary Sydney shyster’ who regularly paid detectives on behalf of petty criminals and prostitutes. Tony Reeves claimed that Roach acted as an intermediary between criminals like Lenny McPherson and corrupt police such as Fred Krahe and Raymond Kelly. Other sources, however, believed that he ‘conducted himself with total propriety, and in a most gentlemanly fashion’ although he was ‘notoriously tight-fisted’. Having been ‘the worse for liquor’ in his earlier years, he became a teetotaller. In Sydney he was a member of the Australian Jockey and Tattersall’s clubs and lived in a Kings Cross penthouse apartment. He sold his practice in the late 1970s.

Over six feet (183 cm) tall, thin and craggy-faced, customarily impeccably attired, Roach was reserved, but friendly and approachable. A busy and hardworking professional, he had a practical knowledge of criminal law and procedure and a realistic approach to its administration. He continued to work until a few months before his death on 4 July 1982 at Darlinghurst, Sydney. Survived by his wife, he was cremated. They had no children. Roach was an efficient embodiment of the fundamental principle of English law that everyone—the guilty as well as the innocent—was entitled to competent legal representation.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Whitton, Can of Worms (1986)
  • T. Reeves, Mr Big (2005)
  • The Times (London), 11 Oct 1955, p 11
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 1982, p 4
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 56, no 9, 1982, p 500
  • private information.

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Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Roach, Philip Norman (1896–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 10 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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