Philip Henry Napoleon Opas OBE QC was born in Melbourne on 24 February 1917 and
died on 25 August 2008, aged 91. His antecedents were Portuguese and Jewish.
His accountant father Joseph Opas was the first to recommend to the Victoria Police
that a special company squad of accountancy-trained men be set up to combat business
Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Opas’ schooling was
cut short at the age of 15. Still a teenager, he was apprenticed to Roy Schilling
as a law clerk and graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of
Laws. He enlisted with the RAAF in 1939 when the second world war broke out. Twelve
months’ war service was permitted to count as six months’ articles,
a rule under which Opas was the first lawyer in Australia to qualify. In 1942, while
on leave from New Guinea, he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of Victoria
as a barrister and solicitor. In 1946 after the war, he signed the Victorian Bar
Roll and read with R.V Monahan (who was later appointed to the Supreme Court bench
and became Sir Robert Monahan).
Opas was a junior barrister for some fifteen years before taking silk in 1958. His
practice was wide and varied, ranging from constitutional matters to local government.
In 1966, Opas became defence counsel to Ronald Ryan, in a lengthy and well-publicised
murder trial that was to become the defining moment in Opas’ long career.
Despite the tenacious defence of his client, Ryan was eventually found guilty and
executed (the last person to be hanged in Victoria) in 1967. Shortly after, the
Victorian Bar Ethics Committee recommended that Opas be struck off the Bar Roll
for touting. Opas was represented at a public hearing by the late Richard E McGarvie,
and acquitted. Disillusioned and dispirited, he left the Bar in 1968 and went to
work with CRA, Comzinc Rio Tinto before returning to the Bar in 1972.
In 1973, Opas was appointed chairman of the Environment Protection Appeals Board,
and later to the Town Planning Appeals Tribunal. He held a number of similar positions
specialising in local government and planning during the 1980s before retiring in
In 1939, Philip Opas married Stella Sonenberg (daughter of well-known criminal lawyer
N.H Sonenberg). They had two daughters. The eldest, Lynnette Schiftan followed her father’s footsteps,
becoming Victoria’s second female QC and its first woman County Court judge.
On Monday 26 January 2009, Philip Opas was posthumously appointed a Member of the
Order of Australia (AM) "for service to the law through state and federal government
review boards and tribunals, as a practitioner, and to the community through a range
of charitable, historical and sporting organisations".