At the age of 17 Judge Robert (Bob) Bellear enlisted in the Navy. For the next seven years he worked on board various naval ships including the HMAS Cerberus, HMAS Anzac, HMAS Sydney, HMAS Hobart and at the shore base HMAS Kuttabul. Throughout this period, he removed asbestos lagging on steam pipes in the engine and boiler rooms. At night he slept in a hammock slung beneath the asbestos lagging.
He and other labour trainees made snow balls out of asbestos scraps. He described this work in an affidavit before the Court. “I wore blue overalls at work. Because of the heat, the overalls were undone to my waist. By the end of a four hour shift I was covered in whitish-grey dust. It was on my hair, my body and on my overalls”. Judge Bob Bellear left the Navy in 1968. Nearly 40 years later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer as a result of the combination of his exposure to asbestos in the Navy and his smoking.
Mature age student
After leaving the Navy in 1972, Judge Bob Bellear started to study for his Higher School Certificate part-time. In 1973 he obtained his Higher School Certificate and applied for, and was accepted, to a law degree at the University of New South Wales. In 1978 he graduated from university and on 13 July 1979 was admitted as a barrister in the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
As a barrister Judge Bellear appeared in criminal, civil, workers’ compensation and family law cases; his main emphasis being criminal trials in the city and country instructed by the Aboriginal Legal Service, which he helped create, Legal Aid Commission and private practitioners.
He acted for traditional land owners in land right claims, was appointed as Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and in 1991 a New South Wales Public Defender. On 17 May 1996 he was appointed as a Judge of the District Court. Judge Bob Bellear was the first and only Aboriginal to be appointed as a judge in Australia.
Throughout his life Bob Bellear was a crusader for justice for Aboriginal people. He was a Director of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Housing Committee, Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Children’s Service and founding Director of Tranby Co-operative College.
Proceedings were commenced on behalf of Judge Bellear in the Dust Diseases Tribunal of New South Wales. Expedition was sought and granted due to the Judge’s increasingly frail condition. Judge Bellear’s evidence was taken at his home and his matter settled just weeks before his death. Turner Freeman acted for Judge Bob Bellear. Judge Bellear’s case shows the indiscriminate nature of asbestos diseases. He is one of a number of prominent people including the former New South Wales Governor, Sir David Martin, also a former naval officer, who have contracted asbestos disease as a result of exposure to asbestos early in their careers.
Judge Bob Bellear was given a State funeral with the New South Wales Parliament being suspended for the afternoon.