Professional Conduct and Disciplinary Proceedings

Barrister Profile – Sarah Leighfield


There was a block of two years where Sarah Leighfield of Counsel was impossible to brief. She was engaged in back to back trials, interlocutory appeals and Court of Appeal conviction and sentence appeals. Her knowledge of the law, her success in cases that have, in fact, changed the law and the respect shown to her by her colleagues, clients and the Judiciary makes Sarah one of the most sought after barristers at the criminal bar.

Accordingly, it may come as a surprise that Sarah Leighfield was the first in her family to go to law school. Growing up in Geelong, educated in a state school to hard working parents, Sarah matriculated through high school and university to achieve the Supreme Court prize in 2000 for the highest ranked student on the Honours class list. That same year she won the Joan Rosanove QC memorial prize for the highest ranked female law student on the Honours class list, the EJB Nunn Scholarship (again for the highest ranked student on the Honour’s class list) and the Jessie Leggatt Scholarship for first place in Law and Society in Japan. Sarah’s major in her Arts Degree was Japanese.

She joined the bar in 2004, after two years working as a solicitor advocate at Galbally O’Bryan, regularly appearing in Court and visiting prisons. She is a passionate advocate with a keen legal mind, responsible for producing submissions and presenting arguments in the Court of Criminal Appeal, which have changed the law, particularly in the area of tendency and coincidence evidence. Her arguments in the cases of PNJ and BCR helped shape the law in Victoria in relation to how the Crown can use past criminal convictions and/or other alleged criminal acts in prosecuting clients. This area is extremely difficult, complex and confusing, even for those of us who practice criminal law and instruct in sex offence matters regularly. It was her work in this area, praised in the Court of Appeal, that finally cemented itself as law in the flagship case of Velkoski, which clarified what tendency evidence is, how it can be used and how it should be explained to the jury.

Sarah is famed for her appearances in complex sex and fraud trials, involving numerous witnesses, voluminous materials and intricate questions of law. Her appreciation of the law and her ability to argue it in relation to separate trial applications and search warrants, make her a daunting opponent. However, that is where the intimidation ends, as Sarah is one of the most calm, considered and pleasant barristers to appear in Court. She mentors young people with an interest in the law, but usually only accepts those from rural or state schools, to encourage people in the public educational system to envisage and aspire to a career in the law (an area that is usually occupied by private school graduates). She regularly teaches continuing professional development seminars to other barristers and solicitors in the area of the criminal law, presents to lawyers studying for their specialisation exams and, teaches subjects for advocacy in the Bar Readers course.

She is passionate about human rights and the individual’s right to a fair trial, which necessitates calling authorities to account for illegal or unethical behaviour and testing the Prosecution case. Frequently, her arguments (which she may fear doomed) succeed in the most unexpected of cases. With her junior, Kelly McKay, she recently successfully argued for the exclusion of a huge amount of incriminating evidence in the case of Pringle.

The unlucky Mr. Pringle found himself in a spot of bother when he was pulled over in his ute for driving whilst his licence was suspended. He had a broken ankle and was on crutches at the time, which was presumably why he had taken a great risk in the circumstances and decided to drive when he shouldn’t have. As the police members ‘assisted’ him to retrieve his belongings before they impounded his ute, one of the police members illegally searched the car and located a small amount of ice. Pringle was arrested. If things weren’t bad enough for poor Pringle, the Police formed a suspicion that he may be carrying items on his person, as he shimmied around in the back of the “divvie” van.

They located a significant amount of ice on his person. From there, the snowball effect began. In his home, they located a commercial quantity of ice, $227,100 inside a safe hidden in a heating vent and yet more drugs and related paraphernalia in his storage unit. A year later, all of which Pringle spent in custody, presumably contemplating a decent stint in prison, Sarah argued that the search was illegal and, as “fruits from a poison tree”, everything that was found as a result of the first detection of that small amount of ice was also illegal. Judge Lawson agreed and found that the evidence was inadmissible as a result of the illegal search. So Mr. Pringle pottered off, another happy Leighfield client…

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