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Phillip John Rice (1927–1991)

by Dean Mildren

This article was published:

Phillip John Rice (1927-1991), barrister, judge, and naval officer, was born on 20 May 1927 in Adelaide, the elder of two sons of John Vincent Rice, station-master, and his wife Lorna Nilpinna, née Giles. His father’s work took the family to remote parts of Australia, with the result that Phillip was educated at various primary schools in South Australia and at Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. From 1940 he boarded with relatives to attend Adelaide High School and in 1944 he worked as a law clerk with a firm of solicitors. That year he began law studies at the University of Adelaide (LLB, 1951).

On 23 April 1945 Rice was mobilised for full-time duty in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR). Having served in HMA ships Australia and Manoora in 1946, he was discharged from the RANR as an able seaman on 7 February 1947. He then commenced articles of clerkship with G. H. Boucaut and resumed his degree course. He was admitted to the Supreme Court of South Australia as a barrister and solicitor on 18 December 1950.

Rice returned to Alice Springs, which he regarded as his hometown, in January 1951. On 28 April that year, at the Presbyterian Church, Seacliff, Adelaide, he married a South Australian-born typist, Marjory Helen Mitton. He practised in Alice Springs until 1958 when he joined the Adelaide firm of Alderman, Brazel, Clark and Ligertwood where he became the senior partner before being appointed QC on 8 October 1970 and moving to the independent Bar.

 Active in the Law Society of South Australia, Rice served as a council member (1967-74) and on a number of committees. He was chairman (1983) of the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal, president (1976-83) of the South Australian Bar Association, vice-president (1980, 1983) of the Australian Bar Association, and part-time lecturer (1970-71) in the law of evidence at the University of Adelaide. Rice served as a legal officer (1971-87) in the RANR, rising to the rank of commodore and holding the appointments of judge advocate general (1983-85) and judge marshal (1985-87). His marriage was dissolved in 1983 and on 7 May, in a civil ceremony at Thorngate, he married a divorcee, Prudence Codrington Holmes.

Rice achieved national fame as the lead counsel for Michael and Lindy Chamberlain at the first and second inquests into the death of their daughter, Azaria. At the first, in December 1980, he was successful in persuading the coroner Denis Barritt that Azaria had been taken by a dingo. The finding was subsequently quashed and the second inquest, before the chief stipendiary magistrate, Gerry Galvin, in September 1981, was held largely in camera. Des Sturgess, the counsel assisting the coroner, refused to reveal to Rice details of new evidence and insisted on calling the Chamberlains before this new evidence had been presented. Despite strong protestations from Rice, the coroner permitted this, notwithstanding legal precedents cited to the court that required the Chamberlains be called last. These tactics not only disadvantaged the Chamberlains but meant that Rice had no opportunity for effective cross-examination of important expert witnesses. As a result, the Chamberlains were committed to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory for trial for murder. Rice was not briefed for the trial because Lindy Chamberlain’s legal adviser thought he was not a criminal trial specialist. On 15 December 1983, he was made a judge of the District Court of South Australia, a position he held until appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory on 8 March 1986.

A great raconteur and bon vivant, Rice was a popular figure, and a man of presence and dignity with an infectious sense of humour. Always cheerful, he possessed a large vocabulary of outback metaphors, Australian idioms, and
bon-mots. He insisted on high standards of personal behaviour, particularly on formal occasions. Although usually immaculately turned out, he could dress down when the occasion warranted. As a judge, he was regarded as diligent, hardworking and capable in all areas of the law, with special expertise in criminal law and evidence. His work was written in a simple and clear style, without prolixity or unnecessary shows of academic learning. Rice conducted his court with courtesy and professionalism but he disliked paperwork, which sometimes resulted in long delays before cases were finalised. Nevertheless some twenty-three of his written judgments were published in the Northern Territory Law Reports alone.

As a young man in Alice Springs Rice had played for the Federal Football Club and had presided over the Memorial Club (life member). Later he was regional chairman for the Northern Territory and a member of the national executive of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. Rice was a keen gardener who lived in the Darwin suburb of Nightcliff. In 1990 he contracted melioidosis, ironically known as ‘Nightcliff gardener’s disease.’ Survived by his wife, one of two sons and one of two daughters of his first marriage, he died of liver failure on 5 June 1991 at Calvary hospital, Adelaide, and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Law Journal. ‘Captain P. J. Rice Q.C.,’ April 1979, 234
  • Chamberlain-Creighton, Lindy. Through My Eyes/Lindy Chamberlain. Port Melbourne: Mandarin Australia, 1990
  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘Lawyer Seen as “Rumpole of the Rock”.’ 6 June 1991, 18
  • Mildren, Dean. Big Boss Fella All Same Judge. Leichhardt: Federation Press, 2011
  • Northern Territory. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Record, vol. 32, 6 February 1991, 320-21
  •  Rice, Phillip John. ‘The Court As It Was.’ Australian Bar Review 2 (1986): 50-54.

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Citation details

Dean Mildren, 'Rice, Phillip John (1927–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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