Tom Howe PSM QC
Tom Howe PSM QC
AGS's most senior dispute resolution practitioner, Tom Howe PSM QC has professional oversight and responsibility for AGS's dispute resolution practice across Australia. He advises on all issues relating to public law matters, and has delivered in-house counsel services for more than 30 years, leading to more than 180 published decisions of courts and tribunals, including many precedent-setting cases. He also acts as legal adviser to commissions and inquiries into parliamentary and executive conduct.
We asked Tom to describe the circumstances that led him to a career in government law, and what's kept him interested and enthused over the years.
'I chose to study law in a fairly unthinking way. Back in the mid-1970s we didn't have much assistance at school when choosing possible career paths. The basic organising principle was to study whatever your marks corresponded to – hence I ended up studying law. It was a series of pretty random events that led me to AGS after graduation. I intended to stay for a year or 2, then do something completely different (outside the law). But I quickly developed a love for government law, blinked, and 31 years later …
'Becoming a lawyer was a bit counter-cultural within my family. I don't think I was destined to become a lawyer, but am now very glad I did so. The clients I've worked with over the years have been fantastic – and I still shake my head at the amount of incredibly interesting work I get to do with and for them.'
Through the various stages of Tom's career, he has been affected, encouraged and sustained by the positive qualities of the people around him. Asked to identify those who've left the strongest mark on him, he cites a diverse group.
'I completed articles of clerkship rather than attending College of Law because I was a bit sick of full-time study and jumped at the chance to earn a wage. My "master solicitor" Jonathon Bell (these days a vigneron, and OAM recipient) was a terrific influence. He really encouraged hard work, independent thinking, and client service.
'After 3 years in private practice, I spent a couple of years at the ACT Legal Aid Office, which exposed me to social justice aspects of legal practice.
'Then, after arriving at AGS, I was lucky enough to work with a series of extraordinary people – principal among them being Joan Bonsey (my supervisor when I joined Government Law), Barry Leader (my predecessor as Chief Counsel Dispute Resolution) and Louise Vardanega, who was then Director of AGS's Canberra office (and has since become AGS's Chief Operating Officer).
'Joan had a passion for statutory construction. She approached a problem of statutory construction as a sort of sleuthing exercise. She always mastered the overall statutory scheme before grappling with the particular provisions of most direct relevance ("read to the bottom of the page, then keep reading …"). Barry was extraordinarily careful and considered, but also very strategic and expansive in his approach to legal issues. Louise has a natural affinity for solving problems – legal and otherwise. She continues to be an extraordinary presence in my working life, along with AGS Executive Legal Assistant Judy O'Neill. Having worked with Louise and Judy for nearly all of my time at AGS, I cannot imagine my working life without them.
'As much as I loved the work itself, it has really been my AGS colleagues, past and present, who have kept me at AGS over the last 3 decades.'
Body of work
Tom was appointed as Commonwealth Queen's Counsel in 2007 in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to Australian law and the Australian Government over many years of outstanding service. His contribution to Commonwealth legal services was further recognised by the award of a Public Service Medal in 2015.
He has appeared in very high-profile cases, such as the first tranche of terrorism-related proceedings which came before courts and tribunals following the post-September 11 reforms to national security laws; the Qantas lockout; the Federal Court challenges brought by James Hird and Essendon Football Club against the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority; the Oil-for-Food Inquiry; the Home Insulation Royal Commission; the 'Palace Papers' case in the Federal Court; proceedings in the High Court involving Man Haron Monis and Clive Palmer; the Montara Commission of Inquiry; and various workers' compensation and discrimination cases in the High Court and Federal Court.
Disciplinary cases Tom appeared in remain leading authorities on topics such as drug-testing of employees and the extent to which employers can discipline employees for their private conduct.
However, when reviewing cases he has been involved in Tom says that the disputes which have not progressed to court have been as rewarding and interesting as those that have been litigated: 'The opportunity to influence how government interacts with disputants, within a system governed by the rule of law, has been a great privilege and enduring source of work satisfaction.'
Tom has advised departments and agencies on myriad issues, such as the establishment and operations of the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce and other executive schemes.
He has acted in the role of Commonwealth Solicitor-General on many occasions over the last 5 years.
Tom has been involved with the ACT Law Society (as the ACT Bar Association's nominee to the Legal Practice and Ethics Committee), the ACT Bar Association and Council, the Law Council of Australia and the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council. His major current professional association is with an ADR think-tank called the Australian Dispute Resolution Advisory Council (ADRAC), of which he is a co-founding member.
'ADR mechanisms remain under-used in Australia in a wide array of disputes. ADRAC-related work keeps me quite busy at times, but the opportunity to contribute to it is something I value greatly. I would encourage people to visit ADRAC's website: adrac.org.au, and read the papers it has published on several dozen interesting ADR-related topics.'
Advice for new lawyers
Given the exceptional achievements and longevity that have characterised Tom's career, we asked him to offer some advice to young lawyers aspiring to similarly sustained and productive involvement in the profession.
'If a new lawyer was seeking the formula for a satisfying and enjoyable career, I would say: work hard, look for challenges and opportunities, and be prepared to really learn from your mistakes. In addition, try not to take things too seriously. Most things do usually work out OK in the end.
'I'd also recommend striving for proper work/life balance. I get it right sometimes, and sometimes I don't. I suspect that, at the end of the day, most hard-working people end up spending more time than they should at work and less time than they should with their families. Few people at the end of their lives will look back and wish they had spent more time in the office.'
Senior Executive Lawyer
Sonja works in the Civil Regulation team and has been with AGS for 22 years. Her main client for some years has been the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).
'It's been a privilege to run AUSTRAC's first 2 civil penalty proceedings – the first against Tabcorp and the second recently filed matter, against CommBank. We achieved a record $45 million civil penalty order against Tabcorp, and a very strong precedent for all regulated entities on the need to have appropriate risk management programs in place to counter money-laundering and terrorism financing. We intend to build significantly on this precedent with the CommBank matter and hope to see improvements in bank culture'.
Senior Executive Lawyer
Fiona is responsible for managing complex litigation across a number of jurisdictions and legal areas, including compensation and administrative law. She is team leader of the national Employment and Compensation team.
'Over my 10 years at AGS, I have had the opportunity to work on a wide range of interesting and important matters, in various jurisdictions, where creativity and innovation were critical to the outcome, including in the High Court. This is one of the great things about working at AGS and in litigation. One matter that stands out was a colour trademark dispute, a growing area of law and a matter that required innovative solutions to a range of challenges, including collation and presentation of evidence. Another is working on an urgent injunction brought by a candidate to stop the count in an electorate in the 2013 Federal election. Having said that, it's not just the prominent matters that are interesting and challenging. My veterans' entitlements and compensation work also often involves a range of interesting issues and challenges, including complex legislation and questions of statutory construction.'
Senior Executive Lawyer
Emily has practised in administrative law for close to 20 years. She specialises in Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 and Judiciary Act 1903 review proceedings, migration law and Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 proceedings, as well as limited merits review proceedings under the National Electricity Law and National Gas Law.
'I have had a long and very rewarding working relationship with the Department of the Environment and Energy, representing the Minister in a range of fascinating and challenging matters arising under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Decisions made under that Act raise a range of complex legal and procedural issues, including often both international law issues and difficult questions of statutory construction. They also routinely involve volumes of detailed scientific analysis and are often high profile. It has been a privilege to help the Department successfully defend many of these decisions, and in the process obtain useful precedents on the operation of this important piece of environmental protection legislation.'