Johnston Withers Lawyers celebrates 75 years in law
In May 2021, Johnston Withers Lawyers celebrated 75 years of helping South Australians access legal advice and justice.
To celebrate, Johnston Withers Lawyers hosted a 75th anniversary celebration where past and present employees, along with several prominent special guests from law, politics, and the Union movement, came together to toast the past, present and future of the firm.
The firm is proud to have worked on numerous significant cases in the areas of worker’s rights, Aboriginal rights, human rights, and access to justice.
Elliott Johnston first hung up a brass plate proclaiming “Elliott Johnston, Barrister & Solicitor” in 1946, in a tiny office on King William Street. He shared the premises with a wrestling ring upstairs, which may have set the tone for many of the legal fights to come. In 1959 Elliott was then joined by his first partner, and wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth subsequently became the first Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in South Australia.
From its small beginnings the firm has grown substantially over the following decades, but has continued to maintain the core value of striving to ensure that everyone, regardless of their economic situation, race or gender has access to justice.
It is not often that a law firm can celebrate 75 years of continuous history. It is even more significant for a plaintiff law firm such as ours which has taken on many social causes and struggles which are now part of the historic and social fabric of this State.
A principal area of practice of the firm has always been the struggle for the rights of workers. Johnston Withers Lawyers has acted for thousands of workers in relation to their workers compensation claims over the past decades and we continue to do so. Over that time we have taken on many cases that have sought to expand the protection of the law for workers and their families.
The firm has also prosecuted many cases for workers who have been unfairly treated in their workplace. One example for instance was the fight to reinstate Ted Gnatenko who was a shop steward for the metal workers at GMH. This eventually went to the High Court and resulted in both reinstatement for Ted and paving the way for improved unfair dismissal laws across Australia.
We acknowledge the strong partnership with unions that our firm has acted for, over many years. In particular, we act for the Ambulance Employees Association who are currently in a major dispute with the Government, seeking sufficient resources for both its members and the community. We are also very involved in the public sector, acting for the PSA and trying to stop privatisation of public services.
Elliott and Andrew Collett were instrumental in establishing the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in South Australia in 1971. Since that time, Johnston Withers has continued to act for many Aboriginal communities in native title cases and in protecting Aboriginal heritage. We have acted, or currently act for clients separated by vast distances right across Australia. We have acted for Cape York Land Council in Queensland and Aboriginal communities in New South Wales, and the Northern Territory. We currently act for Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley, the Pilbara, around Warburton on the edge of the Gibson Desert and for peoples of the APY Lands in the north west of this State. We particularly acknowledge the roles of Richard Bradshaw and Andrew Collett in their strong representation of Aboriginal peoples over many years.
Johnston Withers Lawyers has been a key player in many of the major political and social disputes over the past decades. We have acted on a pro bono basis for many of the protesters involved in the moratorium demonstrations throughout the Vietnam War. We have acted for many gay men and women, including defending them from criminal charges when the attitude of society was very different to that of today.
We continue to act for plaintiffs in cases concerning human rights, including asylum seekers, and we continue our heritage of acting to promote social change and improvements in the legal system.
Access to Justice
A major platform of Johnston Withers Lawyers has been providing access to justice for many persons who would not otherwise be assisted in the legal system. We were very saddened by the recent death of Brian Withers. Brian, with the support of the firm, was a driving force behind the establishment of the Law Society Litigation Assistance Fund which commenced in 1992 and he continued for many years to help administer the Fund. He and the firm have been committed to ensuring that those with low income should still have the opportunity to obtain proper legal representation.
Throughout the decades of its existence, Johnston Withers Lawyers has acted for plaintiffs in significant cases which have developed and expanded the protection of the law. One case was the High Court decision of Commercial Bank of Australia Ltd v Amadio. This was a key development in Australian contract law and equity. In that case, elderly and uneducated Italian parents guaranteed their son’s debt to the Commercial Bank of Australia. The son’s business failed and the bank sought to enforce the guarantee against the parents. When the documents had been signed the son had spoken to his parents in Italian in the presence of bank officers. The Court found that the son had withheld key information from them. Elliot Johnston led the case for the parents.
The Full Supreme Court overturned the decision of a single judge at first instance and found that the bank knew that the son’s financial position was desperate, had collaborated with him to conceal his true position and had an obvious financial interest in obtaining better security for the repayment of the money it had lent. In its landmark decision the High Court agreed with Elliot Johnston’s argument, upheld the decision of the Full Supreme Court, decided that the bank had engaged in unconscionable conduct and that in such circumstances, the Court could set aside the guarantee. This formed the basis for subsequent changes to legislation across Australia to protect consumers.
More recently, Johnston Withers has been involved in defamation cases concerning liability of search engines such as Google for material which they had published. In the case of Duffy, for instance, the Full Supreme Court agreed with our submissions and determined that Google was a secondary publisher of materials. Google was found to be a publisher of search results including hyperlinked material and therefore potentially liable where search results repeat defamatory statements. This is one of the first such cases in Australia. Of course this is an area that is still developing along with the increasing importance of Google and other search engines as well as platforms such as Facebook, in our society.
Development of the Firm
Over time the firm has moved premises and grown, from Rechabite Chambers in Victoria Square to Carrington Street to South Terrace and now in Sturt Street, where we have over 60 staff.
Over the past few years we have taken over the South Australian branch of Slater and Gordon and acquired the Marshall Conveyancing Group.
The firm has continued to maintain a strong presence in its traditional areas of workers compensation, personal injury, employment and criminal law. We recently succeeded, for instance, in having a paramedic acquitted on a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, after an ambulance overturned.
However, the firm has also grown and expanded into a broader range of legal areas. We acknowledge Andrew Mitchard’s role in steering this. We now have offices in Whyalla, Port Augusta, Roxby Downs, Clare and Murray Bridge as well as Adelaide. We have also expanded our work to include a substantial practice in commercial and conveyancing, as well as family law and wills and estates.
In fact there is not much we don’t do. This has given the firm a broader and stronger foundation to be able to build our presence and durability as a legal firm for years into the future.