Philip Henry Napoleon Opas OBE QC was born in Melbourne on 24 February 1917 and died on 25 August 2008, aged 91. His antecedents were Portuguese and Jewish. His accountant father Joseph Opas was the first to recommend to the Victoria Police that a special company squad of accountancy-trained men be set up to combat business fraud.
Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Opas’ schooling was cut short at the age of 15. Still a teenager, he was apprenticed to Roy Schilling as a law clerk and graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Laws. He enlisted with the RAAF in 1939 when the second world war broke out. Twelve months’ war service was permitted to count as six months’ articles, a rule under which Opas was the first lawyer in Australia to qualify. In 1942, while on leave from New Guinea, he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Victoria as a barrister and solicitor. In 1946 after the war, he signed the Victorian Bar Roll and read with R.V Monahan (who was later appointed to the Supreme Court bench and became Justice Sir Robert Monahan). Opas was a junior barrister for some fifteen years before taking silk in 1958. His practice was wide and varied, ranging from constitutional matters to local government.
In 1966, Opas became defence counsel to Ronald Ryan, in a lengthy and well-publicised murder trial that was to become the defining moment in Opas’ long career. Despite the tenacious defence of his client, Ryan was eventually found guilty and executed (the last person to be hanged in Victoria) in 1967. Shortly after, the Victorian Bar Ethics Committee recommended that Opas be struck off the Bar Roll for touting. Opas was represented at a public hearing by the late Richard E McGarvie, and acquitted. Disillusioned and dispirited, he left the Bar in 1968 and went to work with CRA, ConZinc Rio Tinto before returning to the Bar in 1972.
In 1973, Opas was appointed chairman of the Environment Protection Appeals Board, and later to the Town Planning Appeals Tribunal. He held a number of similar positions specialising in local government and planning during the 1980s before retiring in 1989.
I was a scientific officer with the Environment Protection Authority from 1972 until 1982, when I was promoted to the Department of the Premier and Cabinet as Senior Policy Adviser, Natural Resources. Whilst at the EPA, I and my scientific colleagues were initially dumbfounded and then appalled to observe Philip Opas QC, during a hearing of the Environment Protection Appeals Board, place a drop of crude oil in a beaker of water, drink it and then immediately declare that crude oil in water was not pollution. In fact, I thought his behaviour was moronic and unbelievably dismissive of scientific evidence. Perhaps he suffered from the common sense fallacy. Naturally, he got a lot of cheap tabloid publicity for this silly and irresponsible stunt.
Possibly as a result of this cheap publicity, he was later appointed the position of CEO of the City of Doncaster & Templestowe, a position for which he had almost no relevant qualifications or experience. In this case, the councillors of the City of Doncaster & Templestowe were the morons. Leaving aside whether Ronald Ryan was guilty of murder, Philip Opas QC should be admired for his tenacity in trying to save his client from being hanged. But in the non-legal aspects of his career, he appears to have been out of his depth.
The Victorian Bar Oral History <http://oralhistory.vicbar.com.au/opas_bio.asp> Viewed 3 December 2016.