– Bernie “the Attorney” Balmer jokes about running away from the gunshots the day a hitman killed Raymond Patrick Bennett in the old City Court in 1979, when young Balmer was a clerk of courts.
“I could have won the Stawell Gift,” says the criminal lawyer and boxing supremo.
But the evidence suggests Balmer mostly heads towards trouble, not away from it – a trait he shares with his sometime client, Mick Gatto.
He and Gatto have been in the news lately. They go back a bit.
When the Russell Street bomb exploded on Easter Thursday, 1986, Balmer was first to reach Constable Angela Taylor, who had been walking past a stolen Holden packed with gelignite. He carried her battered body to shelter, the first step in a doomed attempt to save her life.
“I remember her clothes had been blown off and her shoelaces were on fire,” he would recall.
The 21-year-old policewoman lived for 24 days. Had she pulled through, Balmer might have been hailed a hero.
As it was, his quick thinking and strong nerve were overshadowed by the evil of the bomb setters.
By comparison with them, the Magistrate Court’s daily parade of offenders was mostly light relief to the knockabout clerk who became a knockabout lawyer.
Balmer belongs to a now rare breed of advocate to have mastered the profession “on the job”.
In Balmer’s case it was under the eye of his mentor John “Darcy” Dugan, a legend among magistrates in an era when many on the bench did not study law.
Now there are as almost as many funny stories about Balmer as there are about “Darcy”. Some might even be true.
Such as why he did not complete year 12 at Assumption College, Kilmore.
His marks weren’t too bad but he left school suddenly after a bully Christian Brother unwisely hit him.
Balmer counter-punched and “dropped” the Brother, much to the consternation of his mother, a lay teacher at the school.
The incident might have ended rather more seriously than it did, with Balmer quietly quitting school.
Later, the big boy from Broadford would channel his long reach! sharp reflexes and robust debating style into the boxing ring, although it is said one of his better bouts was outside the ring – against fellow Broadford boxer Ray Hall, later known as the father and trainer of “big, bad, bustling” Barry Hall.
Balmer and Hall senior had what he drily calls “an altercation at the Kilmore dance”.
After an instructive period working on fishing boats interstate he went to Melbourne and joined a bank.
In 1970, a friend who was a clerk of courts persuaded him to try his luck. He sat the public service exam and started as a clerk, the bottom rung of what would become an eventful career.
The inquiries held after Pentridge Prison riots in the 1970s meant magistrates had to attend hearings in the prison or nearby Brunswick Court.
By this time a promising amateur heavyweight, Balmer was the clerk of choice for “beaks” sent to see prisoners with complaints and requests.
The Broadford boy could talk to “crims” in ways they understood.
Meanwhile, he started studying law part-time.
In 1981, he won the Australian universities heavyweight title and earned his boxing “blue” – an achievement in common with an older lawyer named Alex Lewenberg, who boxed successfully in the 1960s before concentrating on his criminal law practice.
The pair’s common interest in boxing would come in handy last year, when Balmer’s firm fought a Victoria Legal Aid decision to suspend (for 12 months) funding of his firm for serious indictable crime cases.
Balmer briefed Lewenberg to launch a Supreme Court appeal that eventually overturned VLA’s allegation that Balmer’s firm had disadvantaged a rapist’s case by not taking it to the High Court.
The Supreme Court vindicated Balmer & Associates. Call it a TKO.
Prominent Queen’s Counsel Remy van de Wiel – a fierce advocate for better funding for legal aid – says Balmer would be more upset about loss of his professional reputation than losing some work.
“Legal aid doesn’t pay a lot of money,” van de Wiel says. “The danger is that such an allegation could make his firm look incompetent.”
The court accepted that Balmer’s firm had been acting on sound legal advice that its client’s case wasn’t strong enough to warrant wasting taxpayer funds by taking it to the High Court.
Criminal clients can be difficult customers, and Balmer’s files are full of big crime names, not to mention police and footballers.
Former VFA football legend Fred Cook, driven to theft and fraud to feed his drug habit, speaks highly of Balmer.
In his long decline as a petty crook and conman, the former Port Melbourne forward once ran up $60,000 in parking fines.
It wasn’t his worst offence but could have put him back in jail. “But Bernie takes me to Frankston Court and pleads financial hardship – and I got off without paying a cent!” laughs Cook.
Another time, Cook was certain he was going inside after being caught selling a load of stolen paint.
He claims to have paid off a house with the money he’d made from the paint scam over several years, although this time he had been “pinched” for only on load of “hot” paint.
“Luckily, Bernie gets Norm Goss from Port Melbourne (football club) to give character evidence.
“Even better, Darcy Dugan is on the bench and he chats to Norm about football for a while, then asks how many goals I kicked (1399), then gives me a good behaviour bond.”
It was, he says, as lucky a result as O.J. Simpson’s. All part of the Balmer service.
He once represented a notorious murderer and armed robber who has since been given the alias of “Jack Price” as a protected witness.
“Price” had done time with Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read. In fact, a character based on Price had been killed by the fictional Read in the film ‘Chopper’.
When Price was charged with driving into a pole, Balmer argued his client had been so upset at being portrayed as Read’s victim in the film he’d run off the road.
It was more Rumpole than law school, but it worked.
There were no hard feelings. Balmer later represented Read – who had done 27 years’ jail for crimes of violence – on a careless driving charge.
Balmer recalls it fondly. “I told the court I was pleased to indicate that my client had no previous convictions…for traffic offences.”
It brought the house down. As in boxing, it’s all in the timing.
Family aside – he and his wife, Mary, have four daughters, one a lawyer now in the firm – Balmer’s hobby is still boxing.
Not trading leather these days, but trying to run a sport with more scoundrels and chancers than a Sydney racing inquiry.
He has been president of the Victorian Professional Boxing and Combat Sports Board since taking over when television supremo Ron Casey died in 2000. He also has roles on the World Boxing Council and the Oriental Pacific Boxing Federation.
Decorated former policeman Mark Wyllie, who recalls sparring with Balmer in the old Russell Street police gym, reckons the lawyer is the acceptable face of a sport that’s been dogged by controversy and corruption for centuries.
Wyllie says if it weren’t for Balmer’s steady hand, the fight game would be diabolical rather than merely problematical. “I reckon he keeps it tidy,” he says, an opinion echo.
Balmer doesn’t seem to have many enemies. His “friends” are the perceived problem. When his former client (and alleged underworld under word standover man) Gatto applied for a boxing promoter’s licence recently, it hardly raised eyebrows at first.
Balmer didn’t see any need to publicise what some might want to interpret as a conflict of interest.
What he did do, quite properly, was abstain from voting on Gatto’s application, which was unanimously approved by the other four panel members.
While Gatto’s promotion ambitions were quarantined on the sports pages, no one seemed to notice.
But when it was pointed out to Premier Dennis Napthine, he reacted as swiftly as if animal libbers had proposed banning jumps racing in his loved Warrnambool electorate.
The boxing board’s decision was “out of step with community expectations”, the Premier said. “We do not want Mick Gatto and his nefarious ilk running boxing events in Victoria.”
He called for an “urgent review” – which, claims Balmer, is likely to come up with a couple of inconvenient facts.
One is that there are some 77 boxing promoter licence holders in Victoria and few of them are Boy Scouts or choirboys.
A brigs with the law doesn’t rule you out for life, Balmer says, just as with a driver’s licence, a fishing licence, or a crane operator’s ticket.
The other small problem for the Premier is that his mentor, Jeff Kennett, removed the “fit and proper person” clause from the licensing provision when he was running Victoria. As the rule stands, Gatto must get a licence.
Gatto says he met Balmer at Kevin Watterson’s boxing gym in North Melbourne when they were young. “I had a spar with him and I always tell him I’m responsible for him being a lawyer, not a professional boxer,” Gatto jokes.
“But he’s always been a friend on a professional level. In fact I’m having a coffee with him this afternoon.”
Gatto dismisses the controversy over his boxing promoter licence as a “storm in a teacup”. He notes with interest a letter published by a newspaper last week that asked “If Kerry Packer got a state funeral why can’t Mick Gatto get a boxing licence?”.
But Gatto isn’t the only interesting name in the Balmer files. Among his clients were Andrew and Mandy Hodson, adult children of Terry and Christine Hodson, killed in Kew in 2004.
Two years before corrupt Drug Squad detective David Miechel was arrested for his part in the $1.3 million drug burglary involving Terry Hodson and now-disgraced policeman Paul Dale, Miechel wrote an uncorroborated “information report”.
In it he names Balmer as middle man in an alleged deal with corrupt police to “buy” lesser charges for Andrew and Mandy Hodson.
At the time Miechel wrote the report, of course, he was a corrupt detective in a compromising relationship with Mandy Hodson. The report’s value – if any – will be tested when an inquest is finally held on her parents’ deaths.
Balmer says he is looking forward to that, because (he explains) the charges against Andrew and Mandy Hodson in 2002 were before the County Court and could not be sent “down” to the Magistrates Court, no matter how many bent police were trying to manipulate the system.
Meanwhile, it will take more than a jailed thief and liar to make him blink, he says.
He’s keeping his hands up, his chin down, and boxing on – Andrew Rule
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