Johnston Withers

Our story.

Johnston Withers Lawyers was founded in Adelaide in 1946 by Elliott Johnston QC, who passionately pursued justice for all under the law, and acted with empathy and compassion for those in difficult circumstances.

In 2023, we're proud to be celebrating 77 years of rich history.

The early years

The Johnston Withers story starts in 1946, when our founder Elliott Johnston hung up a brass plate proclaiming "Elliott Johnston, Barrister & Solicitor" in a tiny office on King William Street, Adelaide.

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, who later became the first Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in South Australia.

Elliot and Elizabeth Johnston2

The 60s and 70s

Both Elliot and Elizabeth had extensive backgrounds in Union organisations, and throughout the 1960s and 70s, Johnston Withers gained a reputation for protecting the rights of workers through its employment, workers compensation and personal injury practices.

Elliot and Elizabeth acted for thousands of workers in relation to their workers compensation claims over the past decades – and we continue to do so today.

In 1971, Elliott and Andrew Collett, a barrister with Johnston Withers who was later retained as one of the counsel in the first South Australian ‘stolen children’ action, were instrumental in establishing the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement in South Australia.

Since then, we’ve continued to act for many Aboriginal communities in native title cases and in protecting Aboriginal heritage.

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The 80s and 90s

Johnston Withers evolved and expanded throughout the 1980s and 90s under the stewardship of prominent lawyer Brian Withers AM.

During this time, we broadened our services to include a commercial and property practice, including conveyancing, wills and estates, and defamation.

Brian Withers AM

Today, we’re a team of 60 across seven locations

The world may have changed since Elliot first hung up that brass plate, but our team of lawyers and property conveyancers still remain committed to Elliot’s vision that everyone – regardless of their economic situation, race or gender – should have access to justice.

Even though many of our teams act in commercial law and conveyancing, all of us are proud of our history and want to be part of a firm that has these values and helps the community.

Our team takes pride in our reputation for fighting for the underdog and the disadvantaged, and our down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach sets us apart from other law firms.

We’ve been a key player in many significant cases

Throughout our existence, we’ve acted for plaintiffs in significant cases that have developed and expanded the protection of the law, including securing the native title claim for the Adnyamathanha People of the Flinders Ranges, and winning the landmark cases of Chakravarti v Advertiser Newspapers Ltd, Duffy v. Google Inc., and Commercial Bank of Australia Ltd v Amadio.

Win for the adnyamathanha people johnston withers lawyers

We’ve proud to have affected social change

Johnston Withers has been a key player in many major political and social disputes over the past decades.

We’ve acted on a pro bono basis for many of the protesters involved in the moratorium demonstrations throughout the Vietnam War, and represented many gay men and women, including defending them from criminal charges when the attitude of society was very different to that of today.

Today, we act for plaintiffs in cases concerning human rights and we continue our heritage of acting to promote social change and improvements in the legal system.

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We’ve always had a strong passion for justice

A major platform of Johnston Withers has been providing access to justice for many people who otherwise wouldn't be helped in the legal system.

Our former managing director Brian Withers AM, who became a Master of the Supreme Court in November 2004, was a driving force behind the establishment of the Law Society Litigation Assistance Fund, which ensures that those with low income should still have the opportunity to obtain proper legal representation.

He is remembered every year by the Law Society of South Australia with the Brian Withers AM Award, which recognises a person who provides outstanding service to the Law Society, the legal profession and the community.

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We’re in good company

We’re proud to have a long history of working with prominent practitioners, each of whom have contributed to our rich history and reputation.

  • Our founder Elliott Johnston AO QC ,who became a Supreme Court Judge and was appointed Commissioner for the National Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

  • Elizabeth Johnston, who became the first Commissioner for Equal Opportunities in South Australia

  • Brian Withers AM, formerly Judge Withers, Master of the Supreme Court

  • Robyn Layton AO QC, former Judge in the Supreme Court, who’s held various other judicial appointments and appointments including with the International Labour Organisation and to the United Nations

  • Chris Kourakis QC, the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia

  • John Rau, the former Attorney General for South Australia

  • Geoff Eames QC, former Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria

  • Peter McCusker, formerly a Judge in the Workers Compensation Tribunal and Industrial Court

  • Clive Kitchin AM, formerly a Magistrate

  • Paul Heywood-Smith QC

  • Lindy Powell QC

  • Andrew Collett AM, Barrister

  • Emma Thornton, Commissioner of the Fair Work Commission

News & views

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Landmark case: Chakravarti v Advertiser Newspapers Ltd

In the 1990s, Johnston Withers Lawyers (through former director and now special counsel Richard Bradshaw) along with Paul Heywood-Smith QC (at the time junior counsel and, prior to that, one of the Johnston Withers Lawyers’ directors) acted in a highly influential and long-running defamation case: Chakravarti v Advertiser Newspapers Ltd.

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Landmark case: Commercial Bank of Australia Ltd v Amadio

The High Court Decision in Commercial Bank of Australia Ltd v Amadio forced banks to behave more ethically in the future management of mortgages.

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Landmark case: Duffy v. Google Inc

The 2015 Supreme Court of South Australia case of Duffy v Google Inc. and the 2017 Full Court Appeal are well known amongst defamation lawyers throughout Australia as highly significant decisions. They determined that Google and other search engines can be liable as secondary publishers of defamatory material authored and/or posted by others where search results reproduce such material.

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