A BLOKE was at Newcastle Courthouse one day supporting his wife who was attending an inquest.
‘‘Ralph Coolahan still the judge here?’’ he asked.
‘‘I knew him when we were kids,’’ the bloke said. ‘‘He and his brother did good. We were just kids growin’ up in the housing commission up at Shortland.’’
Ralph Coolahan was born at Wallsend on July 3, 1949. As a boy growing up in Shortland he dreamt of becoming a fighter pilot and it was the RAAF’s written examination that confirmed that young Ralph was very bright indeed.
However, it was a physical examination that ended the dream when it was revealed that Ralph was colour-blind.
Not to worry. His efforts at school were such that he was offered a scholarship to study medicine at Sydney University.
Even with the generous Commonwealth scholarship, his parents Clarence and Joyce were unable to provide enough funds to send Ralph to Sydney to live and study.
No, young Ralph needed a job.
His mother found him a clerk’s position in Newcastle and virtually submitted the application on his behalf.
He became an article clerk with the Newcastle office of the Public Solicitor where he would come across another young clerk doing similar work in Sydney.
Young Reg was raised on a dairy farm south of Gloucester and he and Ralph crossed paths while working for the Public Solicitor. Both men studied law and young Reg would later become Justice Blanch, Chief Judge of the NSW District Court.
Ralph was admitted as a solicitor in 1972 and was called to the bar four years later.
And thus began his ascension to what Newcastle Bar Association president Peter Harper described as ‘‘the absolute king’’.
He would later be nicknamed King Ralph by the courthouse staff for another reason. But we’ll come to that later.
He was a formidable advocate in both the civil and criminal jurisdictions and many of his victories were noted in the Newcastle Herald. He used few words in comparison to most of his colleagues, but the words he chose were often devastating: ‘‘Ralph was the master of less is more,’’ Harper said.
Outside the courtroom, Ralph Coolahan, barrister, was at the heart of a social scene where long lunches often evolved into late nights and chamber parties were frequent.
As Harper put it: ‘‘Paper cuts bled red wine.’’
On one occasion Ralph and a friend were settling in for a long lunch when the waiter came over to take their drinks order.
‘‘Do you have any Moet?’’ asked Ralph.
‘‘No,’’ said the waiter.
‘‘Do you have any Bollinger?’’
‘‘No,’’ said the waiter.
‘‘Two VBs then,’’ said Ralph.
He was a passionate sailor who earned the nickname Pulbah after his attempt to sail through Lake Macquarie’s Pulbah Island rather than around it.
He contested the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race including the treacherous 1998 race that claimed six lives. Ralph was navigating during the fatal storm when he abandoned all etiquette and custom to yell: ‘‘Go right!’’
He spent many hours on Lake Macquarie with his three children, Chris, Andrew and Sally, and their lakeside home became a sanctuary as well as a function centre.
Ralph often referred to his children as ‘‘the locusts’’ because he claimed they would arrive, eat and drink him out of house and home, then leave.
At Ralph’s funeral, wife Susie Mosman spoke of his ‘‘beautiful mind’’ that consumed knowledge and adored crosswords, and his daughter Sally told of a loving father renowned for his roast lamb and potatoes with not a green vegetable in sight.
His Honour was partial to Henny Penny. Sally, Andrew and Chris each have memories of their father suggesting they drive to Henny Penny to pick up some chicken and chips on a Friday night.
Ralph was often furious with the service if they were kept waiting in the drive-through area or if the staff had mucked up their order.
On one occasion, fuming, he muttered that Henny Penny should at least erect a movie screen to keep them entertained while they waited. On occasion he left the car, entered the store and chastised the staff.
Chris, Andrew and Sally believe that a young man was specially assigned to deal with the Coolahans on Friday nights.
‘‘He must have been a hostage negotiator,’’ they joked.
During the mid-1990s Ralph began working as an acting judge of the district court, then in 1999 he was sworn in as Newcastle’s full-time criminal judge.
Two of his last cases as a barrister were two of his most famous victories.
One was the successful defence of a Killingworth man sued by Lake Macquarie City Council after a woman had fallen into a drain near the defendant’s property; the other was having conspiracy to murder charges against Lionel Desanges dismissed at a committal hearing.
(Note: The Director of Public Prosecutions later had Desanges indicted despite the magistrate’s ruling. He was acquitted by a jury.)
One of the first things to strike Judge Coolahan in the early days of his judicial career was the relentless workload.
The responsibility was enormous.
He agonised over sentencing and had sympathy for both victims and offenders.
One of the most traumatic cases he presided over was the trial and eventual sentencing of truck driver Gimmi Morabito who caused a triple-fatal accident on the Pacific Highway near Bulahdelah in 2004.
Two of the victims were Rebecca and Jessica Campbell, aged nine and eight respectively.
His Honour was faced with the task of sentencing an old man, 71, for the deaths of two children and their grandmother.
His Honour knew what it was like to lose a child, having lost son Richard to SIDS, and yet there was compassion for the man whose reaction to a car slowing in front caused him to turn sharply and career to the wrong side of the road, crashing and incinerating three people.
Morabito was jailed for a minimum of 15 months. The Court of Criminal Appeal upheld the sentence as fair and not excessive.
His Honour extended mercy to many others including one self-represented appellant who was more than grateful for one last chance. His Honour made the appellant promise that he’d stay off the grog and get a job to which the appellant replied: ‘‘Yes, Your Majesty.’’
King Ralph was crowned.
There were other lighter moments and opportunities for His Honour to exercise his wit, but there was also an ever growing scourge that plagued his court.
Judge Coolahan’s career coincided with the reign of a populist state Labor government determined to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible.
The result was a budget blowout for the Department of Corrective Services as it expanded some jails and built new ones.
At the beginning of Judge Coolahan’s career it was estimated that the average cost of housing a prisoner for one year was $70,000 to $80,000. Many assume that number is now six-figures.
Budget cuts had to be made and they would be inflicted on the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Department of Justice and Attorney-General despite the relevant Labor ministers claiming that budgets for these departments had actually increased.
Even the Department of Corrective Services was forced to find savings including cutting staff while it continued its capital works program.
The result for Newcastle was a mix of frustration, embarrassment and disgust.
The courthouse continued to decay, prisoners got lost and weren’t brought to court and audiovisual equipment broke down and stayed down until it was somehow fixed by the boffins in Sydney.
All the while, the government expected His Honour to conduct trials and hearings in a timely manner.
Someone needed to do something, say something and His Honour did.
When his courtroom and chambers were engulfed by the stench of decaying rat and pigeon corpses His Honour let fly. When prisoners weren’t brought to court despite His Honour’s orders he threatened to issue a warrant for the arrest of the Commissioner of Corrective Services so he could explain to the court, the victims and the offenders or accused what the problem was.
But it was during another potential crisis where His Honour was at his most cranky yet cunning.
In 2009 a Crown prosecutor relayed to the court that due to budget constraints the Director of Public Prosecutions would not be able to supply prosecutors or brief private counsel to lead trials at upcoming sittings at East Maitland and Armidale.
A spokeswoman later told the Newcastle Herald that witnesses had been told not to attend and jury panels cancelled.
When that appeared in the Herald the next day, Judge Coolahan was furious.
The director, Nicholas Cowdery QC, was effectively using East Maitland and Armidale to demand more funding from the Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos.
They had opposing views on a number of issues and both put their views on the Crown prosecutors’ crisis in the Herald.
The real victims, of course, were the defendants, complainants and witnesses waiting patiently for their cases to be heard.
Judge Coolahan executed two deft moves that no doubt had a number of public servants in Sydney scurrying.
The cancelling of jury panels and instructing witnesses not to attend court could amount to perverting the course of justice, His Honour said.
‘‘I may have to make the trip out to East Maitland next Monday myself,’’ he said.
What was this mad judge in Newcastle capable of, they must have thought in Sydney.
Would he dare issue a warrant for the director or, worse, the Attorney-General? Would he seriously recommend that the director be charged with a criminal offence?
Cowdery kept blaming the government for not funding his office adequately and Hatzistergos kept blaming the director for not managing his budget properly, but within days some funds magically appeared.
There were many other incidents and memorable cases heard in courtroom 4 over the years. The child sex and drugs trial of former MP Milton Orkopoulos and the sentencing of celebrated paramedic David Higgins for attempted murder are among the more notable.
The gentleman who grew up with young Ralph at Shortland never did stick his head in courtroom 4. If he had, one wonders what he would have made of seeing his old mate decked out in his robes sitting on the bench. (Judge Coolahan rarely wore his wig).
Had he looked closely he might have noticed that the robe was frayed in a few places and the red and purple had faded.
He might have thought: ‘‘There sits my old mate Ralph. A kid who wanted to be a fighter pilot, could have been a doctor, wound up a judge.’’
Not bad for a kid from Shortland.
Written with the assistance of extracts from eulogies delivered by Justice Reg Blanch, Peter Harper, Susie Mosman and Sally Coolahan.