A colourful Sydney barrister who made international headlines over his “offensive” Lamborghini number plates says his legal battle with Transport NSW is back on – and he’s going to give them “a f***ing war they will not believe”.
Peter Lavac, a renowned criminal defence barrister and self-described “playboy”, was informed by transport bureaucrats in August that he had to hand back the personalised plates on his prized bright yellow Lambo which read “LGOPNR”.
“Transport for NSW determined that these number plates could be considered offensive and must be returned,” the letter said.
He argued that “99 out of 100 people” had no idea what the plates meant – “leg opener”, a “tongue-in-cheek” reference to his reputation as a ladies’ man that he earned from a young age – and that when people found out, “the universal reaction is always the same, laughter”.
“How on earth can recreational sex between consenting adults ever be offensive or demeaning in any way, shape or form?” he told news.com.au.
“Recreational sex is a celebration of the human body and human spirit – how can that ever be offensive?”
Mr Lavac was given 18 days to hand in his plates or have his registration cancelled. Describing it as a free-speech issue, the former Hong Kong crown prosecutor vowed to fight the “bullies”.
Assembling a high-powered legal team of “heavy hitters”, he challenged the letter in local court on September 1, where the case was thrown out by the magistrate.
“The person who wrote the (original) letter wrote it under the wrong legislation,” he said. “The legislation he was relying on no longer exists, it was repealed years ago. So of course that was tossed out.”
Mr Lavac said they were then “waiting to see whether they would want to bat on or not, and it seems they do”.
Transport NSW safety, environment and regulation deputy secretary Tara McCarthy told news.com.au last week the decision to revoke Mr Lavac’s plates still stands.
He received a near-identical letter a few days ago, exactly the same as the first one only this time citing the correct legislation.
“They’re obviously gluttons for punishment,” he said. He intends to ignore the letter and when he receives a second letter informing him his registration has been cancelled, “we will go back to court and start all over again”.
“And you know what? If they want to bat on, bring it on. We will give them a f***ing war they will not believe,” he said. “That’s my attitude. I love nothing more in life than a good fight.”
He has two “top gun” barristers on the case, including Sasha Milanovic from Ada Evans Chambers.
“The reason I picked Sasha for this case is because of his legendary prowess as a casanova,” Mr Lavac said. “He’s a great ladies’ man, and I realise this needs someone of his calibre who will understand and appreciate the subtle complexities of a case like this.”
The legal argument is “very simple – the plates are not offensive”.
He has a number of prominent witnesses lined up including a female judge who has “been in the Lambo, knows what they mean” and “not only is she not offended she was greatly amused”.
While he still does not know who originally complained, he says it was either an “anonymous keyboard warrior” hiding in “coward’s corner”, or someone with “tall poppy syndrome” who “knows me, knows the car and resents me driving a car like that”.
“I imagine if they want to succeed they will have to call this individual who fired in the complaint, get them in the witness box to explain why he or she found the plates offensive,” he said.
“If that happens, my heavy hitters will tear them to pieces in cross-examination.”
Mr Lavac, a competitive athlete who once set a world record for a 900km surfski voyage from Hong Kong to the Philippines, sat down with news.com.au this week to talk about his new-found viral fame.
‘PEOPLE HAVE HAD A GUTFUL’
News outlets around the world picked up the Sunday Telegraph’s front page story last month.
Mr Lavac believes it struck a chord for two reasons.
“Number one, people are sick and tired and have had a gutful of being bullied by governments, being bullied by overzealous bureaucratic desk jockeys flexing their muscles and throwing their weight around,” he said.
“The second reason, people have had a gutful of this political correctness mob who are constantly trying to dictate to all the silent majority what we can and can’t say. People are sick of all that bulls**t, and when they see somebody push back and stand up to the bullies, they stand up and cheer.”
The day the story came out, Mr Lavac was at the south coast. Wherever he parked his car, “people would approach me wanting to shake my hand and thank me for standing up to the bullies and sticking it to the PC mob”.
“When I drove back to Sydney a few days later, people were honking their horns, giving the thumbs up, pumping their fists in the air when they recognised the car and the number plate,” he said.
But he stresses he’s “not just a shallow playboy swanning around in an obscenely expensive Lamborghini posing”.
“I use that car for racing, not posing,” he said.
DARING HIGH-SEAS RESCUE
Mr Lavac has been commended for bravery three times.
The first came in 1971 as a university student, when he saved a father and son from drowning in heavy seas while working as a lifeguard at Sydney’s Queenscliff Beach.
“I saw these two heads bobbing up and down in the surf, I realised we had a rescue,” he said.
The father had been on the beach with his two children when a huge wave dumped on the 12-year-old boy and swept him out to sea. “Dad very bravely dived in after him fully clothed in his shoes, the only problem is dad couldn’t swim,” he said.
Mr Lavac donned a pair of fins and swam out while the other lifeguards manned the reel.
“I got the kid in pretty easily, then I went after the old man. I really had to battle through huge seas, I thought I was going to drown myself.”
He was separated from the father three times by huge waves, having to dive down to the ocean floor to pick him up each time. “Eventually I got him in, I was so exhausted I thought I was going to die,” he said.
“We revived him, brought him round, he started breathing, then he died again. This happened three times. Then the ambos came with their defibrillator, zapped him, took him to ICU at Manly Hospital and he survived.”
Some time afterwards the doctor sent him a cheque for “several thousand” dollars to say thank you.
Many years later, Mr Lavac was in Tamworth with his first wife to visit her brother and sister-in-law when the story came up – and they realised the doctor lived next door.
“It was late at night we pounded on the door,” he said. “They were p*ssed off because we’d woken them up, but when I told them who I was – big hugs and kisses. We were up until dawn chatting and laughing.”
HOTEL GUNMAN DISARMED
A few years later in 1975, Mr Lavac was working as a nightclub bouncer at the Sydney Hilton’s George Adams bar when he had a gun pulled on him.
“I was checking people coming in as to whether they were properly dressed or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and one guy who looked a bit weird came towards me, looked like he was on drugs or booze,” he said.
When he told the man he couldn’t come in, “he got right up into my face, didn’t say a word, opened his jacket – he had a gun in his waistband”.
The man reached for the gun and pulled it halfway out. “I just acted on pure adrenaline and instinct,” Mr Lavac said.
“I grabbed his wrist, knocked the gun out of his hand, spun him around in a wrestling move, picked him up and slammed him onto his back on the marble floor. He hit his head and was knocked out.”
Mr Lavac hid the gun then “went back and put my foot on his throat” while waiting for police to arrive.
After giving a statement, “all the adrenaline had worn off, I started shaking like a leaf”.
“He had a record as long as your arm, he had criminal convictions for violence, firearms offences, pretty extensive record,” he said.
The hotel’s general manager Anthony Carpenter sent Mr Lavac a letter thanking him for his “expert handling of the ‘incident’ last Saturday evening”.
“Had you not been on the scene and acted so judiciously, it is quite obvious that the problem could have assumed nasty proportions,” he wrote.
‘I SAVED A JUDGE’S LIFE’
The third occasion came in 1981, shortly after he started practising, when Mr Lavac saved Judge Kenneth Torrington’s life at Darlinghurst Court.
A prisoner was being sentenced in the dock at one end of the room when he “suddenly spat the dummy”.
“He jumped out of the dock, onto the bar table, jumped onto the ground, started sprinting toward the judge screaming, ‘I’m going to kill you, you old c**t,’” Mr Lavac said.
“All the cops and security were sound asleep sitting on their hands, no one realised what had happened.”
Mr Lavac was sitting closest to the judge at the end of the long bar table. “I was the last guy between him and the judge,” he said.
“I was at the top of my game at that time wrestling competitively – I grabbed him around the hips as he came towards me, slammed him on his back on the floor and got him in a submission chokehold.”
The prisoner was “completely overpowered and under control” when “suddenly all the cops and security woke up” and “we’re buried by a sea of blue uniforms like a rugby scrum”.
“The judge sh*t himself, he dived under the bench,” he said. “After that I became the judge’s best friend, he really loved me.”
In the court that day was Greg Smith, who would go on to be NSW Attorney-General. “He loves telling the story.”
HIS MOST MEMORABLE CASE
After beginning his career as a solicitor in Sydney, Mr Lavac moved to Hong Kong in 1986 where he spent the first eight years as a crown prosecutor, mainly “locking up triad gangsters”.
He then went into private practice as a criminal defence barrister “defending triad gangsters and keeping them out of jail”.
Mr Lavac prefers defending because it’s “a lot more challenging”, whereas prosecuting is “like reading from a cookbook”.
“You don’t really get a chance much to cross-examine anyone, and I like cross-examining witnesses,” he said.
His most memorable win was in an explosives case, which made international headlines at the time due to the involvement of Cheung Tze-keung, the infamous gangster nicknamed “Big Spender” best known for kidnapping the sons of wealthy tycoons.
Mr Lavac’s client had been arrested after being seen by police entering a hut where the triads were storing a large amount of imported ammonium nitrate.
“We won that case by getting a top gun forensics expert … who was able to give evidence that so many million tonnes of ammonium nitrate were imported into Hong Kong every year as fertiliser,” he said.
“Because this was a rural area, she was able to tell the jury that when the wind blows, ammonium nitrate contaminates all the soil everywhere, so when he was tackled to the ground and rolled around in the dirt, the ammonium nitrate that came out on his hands and clothes could have come from the dirt.”
The prosecution “f***ed it up because they didn’t test their own cops for ammonium nitrate traces”.
BRUTAL SEWAGE TANK MURDER
Mr Lavac says his second most memorable case was his most difficult – and his worst client.
The man, a Nigerian British citizen living in Hong Kong, had brutally murdered his Filipino girlfriend after she dumped him.
The woman had fled to the Philippines Consulate for safety when the man barged in past all the staff, “dragged her out of the premises, beat her half unconscious, then dragged her round to the back of the building and stuffed her headfirst down a sewage tank” where she drowned.
“That was a really nasty case,” Mr Lavac said.
The client was “the worst I’ve ever had because he was constantly changing his instructions”.
At one point he told his barrister he had been having sex with one of the witnesses. Mr Lavac then spent half a day cross-examining the woman “about the alleged sexual relationship she had with my client which motivated her to make up the story – she denied it of course”.
“Then when I put him in the witness box and took him to that part of the evidence, I said, ‘Do you know (the woman)?’ ‘Yeah. She was a friend.’ ‘Did you have a relationship with her?’ ‘No, never.’ ‘Did you have sex with her?’ ‘No, never touched her.’ So that’s the sort of sh*t I had to deal with.”
After a seven-month trial, which restarted several times due to juries being discharged, the man was eventually convicted and got life. “Which in Hong Kong means life,” Mr Lavac said.
NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
This week, Mr Lavac celebrated his 12th anniversary in the “2 per cent club”.
In 2008, he was busy training for a surfski race in Hawaii when he suddenly got sick with a “flu which wouldn’t go away”.
An X-ray showed a dark shadow on his right lung. “One week I’m trying to figure out how much water to carry on the surfski to get me from Molokai to Oahu, the following week I’m on the operating table fighting for my life,” he said.
“They had to rip out the top 30 per cent of my whole right lung, and by doing that they saved my life. Every 12 months I have a PET scan, they check my whole body for any recurrence of cancer – yesterday was the 12th year in a row I’ve been completely clear.”
A lifelong non-smoker and teetotaller, he famously blamed his shock diagnosis on his chain-smoking downstairs neighbours and threatened to sue them.
“These b**tards virtually smoked 24-hours a day,” he said.
“All the smoke came into our apartment, I was coughing and not breathing properly for 18 months. I tried everything, I went to the body corporate, I went to the tenancy tribunal, I went to the strata management company, nothing. I threatened to punch the guy’s head in, that didn’t help – there were AVOs flying around – so we eventually moved out.”
He was ready to go with a lawsuit and his legal team felt he had a good chance of winning, but “no matter how good your case looks on paper, there are no guarantees in litigation”.
“I decided with advice from some mates not to do it because of the anxiety, the stress that would involve, the fact that it could take years, the fact these people could be funded by the tobacco companies, so I decided not to go ahead,” he said.
“But I’m pretty sure they had some sleepless nights worrying they were going to get sued.”
‘ZERO TOLERANCE FOR BULLIES’
Mr Lavac says the reason for his decision to fight Transport NSW goes all the way back to his childhood.
“I have zero tolerance for bullies, whether it’s in the schoolyard, in the workplace, in the courtroom,” he said.
“My old man taught me how to deal with bullies. I had a very difficult childhood. The old man was a violent, abusive alcoholic. When he got drunk, which was very often, he’d beat up my mum, he’d beat me up, he’d beat up my young brother, he’d even beat the family dog.”
Mr Lavac started lifting weights at the age of 15 and quickly “put on a lot of muscle”.
“The next time he went to hit me, I knocked him out with a beautiful left hook – he was out cold before he hit the ground,” he said.
“The happiest memory of my old man was him lying out cold on the kitchen floor. After that, he never hit Mum again, he never hit me, my brother, he even left the family dog alone. On that day I discovered the awesome power of physical fitness. That’s why I’ve been in sport, training, bodybuilding, martial arts my whole life.”
Even now he’s a gym junkie, and works “very hard to spend as little time in the courtroom as possible”.
“Less time in the court means more time in the gym,” he said.
“Two, it gives me more time at racetrack, and three, because I like to spend time counselling and mentoring cancer sufferers, people who are going through the same sh*t I was going through.”
‘PLAYBOY LIFE BEHIND ME’
The North Shore barrister – who has an upcoming role as a “musclebound thug” in a Aussie short film – in the 1980s was often photographed with Sharon Kwok, a popular Hong Kong movie star and Playboy centrefold.
The pair met when she turned up with her director at one of Mr Lavac’s “wild parties”.
“I took her for a ride on my Harley-Davidson, we left the party, left the director behind, we became friends after that,” he said. “The media did quite a few stories on us.”
Mr Lavac doesn’t call her a girlfriend, though. “We were good friends. I won’t go further than that,” he said.
He says the “playboy” tag, which he earned as a teenager when he discovered he was “pretty good at getting girls very easily”, has “been with me my whole life”.
“Half of the people that knew me reacted with grudging admiration and a lot of ribbing, the other half reacted with naked hatred and resentment,” he said.
He added, “Now in honour of my wife – I left that lifestyle behind me when I married my beautiful third wife.”