Richard Wright, 20.1.1947 - 23.3.2017
“THANKS for popping in.”
It was Magistrate Richard Wright’s favourite way to end a court appearance, said with as much sincerity as it was with his trademark dry wit.
Rarely a matter would pass in his courtroom without him making a comment that would draw a smile from even the most nervous accused.
He spoke softly, but a word was never wasted.
His passing last month allowed Australia’s legal and public service community to reflect on the legacy of Mr Wright, whose calm, rational and good-natured approach to the delivery of justice in country Victoria made him respected among all who appeared in his courtroom.
He became a magistrate in 2004 when he moved from Melbourne to Dunolly – a town where he would spend the final 13 years of his life, escaping the fast-paced city life.
From 2008, he was the co-ordinating magistrate for the region that included Bendigo, Mildura, Swan Hill, Kyneton, Gisborne and Echuca.
Yet his work from the bench was just the final chapter of a life committed to public service.
Mr Wright was among the first intake of 500 students to enrol at La Trobe University 50 years ago, completing a Bachelor of Economics with Honours.
He moved to Canberra at the time of the election of the Whitlam government, and worked with the Tariff Board.
Mr Wright returned to Melbourne three years later to provide his economics expertise to the Prices Justification Board, and National Companies and Securities Commission.
Mr Wright completed a law degree at the same time – a precursor to his move into the legal field later in life.
He also filled a variety of roles in Canberra, bringing him in contact with some of Australia’s most respected public servants.
Some of his greatest achievements occurred during his time as executive director of the Victorian Law Reform Commission in the 1990s.
Mr Wright helped the commission to modernise, using ABC radio to bring its work to the public, while also making Victorian statute law accessible to all via the internet.
The commission succeeded in bringing about four-year terms in Victoria during Mr Wright’s tenure – sparing the public of a state election every three years.
David Kelly was chair of the VLRC during this period. He said Mr Wright was always the voice of reason during trying times.
“I deeply appreciated his humour, loyalty, sanity and strength, both while he was executive director, and after he decided to advance his career elsewhere,” Mr Kelly said.
“I was, of course, not alone in my regard for him. Richard was respected and liked by everyone.
“His value as executive director was incalculable.”
Following roles with the Victorian Public Service Board and some private sector consulting, he became the chair of the Small Claims and Residential Tenancies Tribunal, just before its absorption into VCAT.
Mr Wright worked in the Department of Premier and Cabinet during the Bracks government.
He was then appointed a magistrate in 2004, and had found his true calling in life.
His wife, Fiona Lindsay, said it was a perfect fit – he could use his legal knowledge and sense of justice to benefit others, while having his jokes met with guaranteed laughter.
“He took to it like a duck to water,” she said.
“He was concerned that justice wasn’t always working for the disadvantaged, and took an interest in people with mental health issues, working closely with the court’s psychiatric nurse.
“He would critically assess everything that came before him.”
Terry Moran, who served as the secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, said Mr Wright found fulfillment in every position he took on.
“At last Richard had found his perfect slot in life as a country magistrate and then co-ordinating magistrate for north west Victoria,” he said.
“He loved it. He enjoyed respect in the community and within the justice system, applied a deep and respectful understanding of the law and adapted easily to reliable decision making on the bench.
“Always effortlessly charming, he kept up with old friends, constructed stories to tell and humbug to expose while swimming in local community life.”
Both defence counsels and police prosecutors alike were always kept on their toes by Mr Wright’s attention to detail and deep understanding of legal procedure.
He remained active well into his 60s, embracing cycling and traveling abroad to Italy in 2015.
After he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Mr Wright would continue to eagerly read the judgements of his many friends in the legal community, keeping engaged in the field.
A continuous stream of correspondence with people across the country in his final years was a comfort to Mr Wright and his family.
The Bendigo Law Association hosted a farewell for Mr Wright in 2016.
He attended a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation of La Trobe University earlier this year, an evening Ms Lindsay said brought him “great joy”.
Richard Wright was remembered at a funeral service in Dunolly in March. He had two children, William and Zoe, and one grandchild, Thomas.