On Judges and Opponents
“I never thought about the opponents,” Tommy Thomas answered. “I just [asked], have we got a good case, and invariably, we would have a good case.” Such statements, at first glance, may seem unexpected, especially after hearing Thomas speak so favourably throughout the interview about the teachers, mentors, and contemporaries that guided him through his journey in the legal profession.
Thomas paid tribute to the “informative and inspirational” law faculty that he was surrounded by at the University of Manchester, among them a current professor of law at Oxford University, and a sitting judge on the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. He even went so far as to characterise his tort law professor – Harry Street – as an “intellectual giant.” Thomas spoke similarly highly of Stanley Peddie, his master and mentor during his formative years as a young lawyer at Skrine. Other leaders at Skrine, including Peter Mooney, James Puthucheary, and John Chadwick, were also highlighted for both the integrity with which they conducted their practice, and the remarkably high standards that they set for younger lawyers like Thomas. Among judges, none received higher praise than the famous Malaysian jurist Eusoffe Abdoolcader, who Thomas labeled the “litmus test” for judges, and during his time on the bench, the “cleverest person in Malaysia.”
Considering Thomas’ unreserved admiration for his colleagues, it is intriguing that he rarely contemplated the strengths of his opponents. Surely during his 44 years of practice, Thomas would have come across and taken notice of a number of icons of the Malaysian courtroom, seated across the aisle. But perhaps this fact captures a facet of Thomas’ underlying approach to advocacy: All that crosses his mind when presented with a new brief is finding the arguments and strategy that best represent his client. The people around him – judges, opponents, and even his legal assistants – are secondary. Earlier in the conversation, Thomas had likened litigation to a match of single’s tennis or single’s badminton, rather than rugby or football. “Litigation is not committee work,” he summarised. So perhaps we should not be surprised that Thomas never thought excessively about his opponents. Tommy Thomas, the advocate, was too preoccupied with the case, and only the case.