Dyson Heydon, one of Australia's top jurists, admits he doesn't have a computer and can't email

Photo: Paula Bronstein/ Getty

Justice Dyson Heydon is one of Australia’s top jurists, having spent a decade on the High Court before retiring at the constitutionally mandated age of 70. He’s an emeritus professor of Sydney University’s law school and is currently running the Abbott government’s royal commission into trade union governance and corruption.

Earlier this month, the Herald Sun revealed he was being paid around $1 million – around $3000 a day – to oversee the royal commission, but today it emerged that using a computer was not part of the job description.

In a 67-page ruling Heydon released today, explaining why he dismissed a trade unions application asking him to step down from the royal commission because he’d agreed to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser, he admits to being something of a luddite. Heydon withdrew from giving the address when it emerged, via the media, that it was a political party event, explaining that he’d overlooked the detail.

But 72-year-old makes an astonishing confession when it comes to the world’s most popular form of communication: email, going so far as to say that he doesn’t even have a computer.

Here’s what he says in the judgment:

At the outset, it should be noted that there is evidence that I have no computer and that all email correspondence is sent and received by my personal assistant (ACTU MFI-6).

Indeed it is notorious among the legal profession that I am incapable of sending or receiving emails.

The consequence is that I read emails only after they have been printed out for me.

US tech research firm Radicati estimates that around 2.6 billion people globally send around 205 billion emails daily.

It’s the primary form of business communication, Radicati says, with around 122 business emails sent and received per user per day.

The problem with email, as the royal commissioner see it, is that it’s “oppressively compelling” a reply. And the idea that he’d read the invite to the event he was speaking at is “fanciful” when he’s a very busy man.

Here’s what he says:

The bystander is in fact likely to reason that one thing a legal background brings is a capacity to go to the point of an email – a form of communication oppressively compelling a speedy response – so that a response can be despatched, particularly where the email does not relate to particular legal problems but to an extra-curricular engagement. The emails in question did not relate to Commission business, but to a possible outside activity.

The invitation did not call for my attention and there was no point in my looking at it: having glanced through the email on the first page, noting the time, date and place of the dinner, and noting that I was to be the guest of the organisers, it was not necessary for me to read the attachments explaining how those who were to pay would pay. That subject was of no concern to me.

Further, the fair-minded observer would recognise that I was busily engaged in Commission work. The contention that, having regard to those matters, the fair-minded observer would necessarily infer that I read the invitation is fanciful.

What’s also notable about Dyson Heydon’s ruling is that while he dismisses the email as just a trifle, easily overlooked, he spends a lot of time parsing the email trail in his ruling, which you can read here.

Trade union officials grilled over similar correspondence, including ALP leader Bill Shorten, will undoubtedly keep in mind justice Heydon’s stout defence of not being across the details when they next appear before the commissioner.

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