University of Melbourne Magazine

Changing lives through class action

  • Peter Gordon, Director, Gordon Legal.

    Peter Gordon, Director, Gordon Legal.

    “We’ll be changing a lot of people’s lives today,” says Peter Gordon, head of Gordon Legal, a practice established in 2010 to run a compensation claim for more than 100 Australian and New Zealand thalidomide survivors whose initial claims were rejected many years ago.

    As the interview takes place, multinational beverage company Diageo has deposited $96 million into Gordon Legal’s account overnight. It is a momentous day for Peter and the small team who have “poured their heart and soul” into the class action.

    The settlement ranks as the finest amongst many wins for the battlers he has represented throughout a legal career spanning more than 30 years.

    President of the Western Bulldogs Football Club, the 56-year-old former Slater & Gordon partner is a passionate advocate for “law for the poor”, representing injured workers, claimants, consumers and aggrieved shareholders.

    He grew up in West Footscray, was dux of St John’s College in Braybrook and arrived at Melbourne Law School in 1976. The Whitlam Government had been dismissed months earlier and the event framed fervent debate on and off campus.

    “One of the leading commentators was Professor Colin Howard who spoke with incredible intellect and insight into the Reserve Powers of the Crown,” Peter recalls.

    Two years into the course he volunteered at the Williamstown Legal Referral Service, which confirmed his career ambitions. “I wanted to practise on behalf of poor people.”

    Later Slater & Gordon “thought I had the right working class stock and potential” and Peter started with the firm in 1980.

    Four years later he convinced his boss to open a Footscray office. Peter recalls that “the first day at Footscray was the start of the trial in Pilmer v McPhersons, the first successful common law action for damages for negligence for an asbestos cancer victim”.

    As a junior lawyer he’d previously been told that it was too hard to run a case for negligence for someone with an asbestos-related cancer because “the victims died too quickly”. So he spoke to the firm’s senior partner and said he wanted to approach the Court to fast-track the process “for interlocutory processes, discovery and interrogatories” to make sure victims got a trial in their lifetime. The firm agreed and Peter applied to the Court which “granted us a speedy trial and we won”.

    Following that case Peter found himself “besieged” with calls from other victims of asbestos cancer. “I loved the work and the firm loved it,” he says.

    It opened the door to Slater & Gordon’s first landmark class action, Wittenoom, in 1989 which won compensation for hundreds of asbestos miners and their families. A list of landmark class actions followed and “all of a sudden we were a national law firm”.

    Peter was made an equity partner in 1989. The legal partnership was later incorporated and listed on the ASX in 2007. It is now one of the top 50 law firms in the UK.

    Peter left in 2010, selling down his shareholding and thought he’d never practise again, but when the need arose to run the thalidomide case for the many thalidomide victims left behind, he jumped at it.

    “Thalidomide has been the most satisfying, challenging and intellectually stimulating litigation of my life,” reflects Peter.


    – Angela Martinkus