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Stary on the rise

News

Cite as: April 2011 85(4) LIJ, p.22

His work for high-profile clients is attracting international attention, but lawyer Rob Stary remains committed to his working class roots and the marginalised in society.

By Jason Gregory

Rob Stary has spent decades building a reputation locally as a dogged legal advocate. Now the 54-year-old Melbourne criminal lawyer is building an international profile.

Two days before speaking with the LIJ in mid-February, Mr Stary had returned from Dubai where he is representing alleged Tamil Tiger financier Naren Narendran.

Last June he was retained by London-based WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and continues to represent Myuran Sukumaran, a member of the Bali 9 sentenced to death in 2006.

The by-product of defending these conspicuous clients, along with the likes of accused terrorists Jack Thomas and the Benbrika brothers and underworld figures such as Carl Williams means the lawyer has rarely strayed from the headlines over the past decade.

In fact, his success led to him being named among The Age’s Top 100 “Melbourne people who have made a significant contribution to public life” in 2008.

However, Mr Stary admits that while he is happy with his career, success has taken a personal toll, parts of which he regrets.

The terrorism-related work has also created a new practice division for Mr Stary that he is keen to grow. He would like to work more in international criminal courts, such as the Hague and special courts in places such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Discussions with New Zealand and English firms about establishing relationships with their offices are also underway.

But, despite the notoriety and a growing reputation overseas, it is the everyday working-class client who remains the heartbeat for the growing criminal law firm Rob Stary Lawyers.

“I will always do case work, which is the most rewarding part of my professional life,” he said.

“It is a sobering thing to do the work we do and it gives you a good perspective on life and makes me appreciate all the opportunities I have been given,” he said.

“I understand what it is like for people to worry and to struggle, to get by week to week. I am driven both philosophically and ideologically to try and provide a service for those who are marginalised or politically need representation.

“Other people might not think so, but I think I have retained my working class roots.”

Those roots are firmly planted in Melbourne’s west. Rob Stary is the third of six children, raised in Footscray amid humble surroundings that were a contrast to their beginnings half a world away in war-torn Europe.

In 1944, his father, Lorant Stary, a final year law student, was conscripted into the Hungarian Army, sent to the Eastern Front and captured by Soviet forces. His grandfather, Dr Robert Stary, was a former Hungarian Crown Prosecutor.

Lorant Stary escaped the prisoner of war camp and was reunited with his father in Germany, where they lived in a displaced persons camp until emigrating to Australia in 1948. Four years later Lorant Stary married Muriel Blackburn, a fifth generation Australian of Presbyterian Scot descent.

Rob Stary’s memories of his childhood are of his parents always struggling financially, of life in a housing commission estate in Maidstone, and education at local Catholic primary and secondary schools.

He feared entry into the privileged world of academe was a bridge too far for a Braybrook secondary school student, but worked tirelessly in a bid to follow the family tradition by becoming a lawyer.

Mr Stary said his father “definitely inculcated [in me] views of justice and fairness through a Christian perspective”, and he took them with him to the University of Melbourne, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1979. He has carried them ever since.

The man who joined the West Footscray Christian Workers at 16, the Australian Labor Party at 18 and co-founded the Western Suburbs Legal Service during his third-year university studies, spent two years with local Footscray firms following his graduation. He then moved to what was then known as the Legal Aid Commission of Victoria (now Victoria Legal Aid) in 1981, where he mainly worked as a duty solicitor and trial lawyer.

In 1984, schoolyard friend and university contemporary Peter Gordon encouraged Mr Stary to move to his law firm, Slater & Gordon, and realise their “long-term dream” of establishing an office in Footscray.

He left Slater & Gordon in 1995 and become the principal of Robert Stary Lawyers, which now has offices in Melbourne, Footscray, Sunshine, Ringwood and Geelong and employs 15 full-time lawyers.

Asked what has set him apart as a lawyer, Mr Stary said his actions were a product of his working-class upbringing, reinforced by the cultural divide he witnessed at university and throughout his legal career.

“If I think something is wrong, I am going to say it,” he said.

“Sometimes I have spoken out too much and at my own peril and I have now put myself in a position where I could never pursue a political career, although if I didn’t get involved in law I would probably be in politics.”

Mr Stary says his firm acts without fear or favour for people and has strong links to community organisations and trade unions. The vast majority of its work comes through word of mouth.

The grapevine led to Mr Stary being offered the Naren Narendran matter this year, following his successful representation of three Australian Tamil men arrested in 2007 charged with being members of, and providing funds to, Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elena.

The multimillion-dollar investigation and trial ended in 2010 with the men being released on good behaviour bonds on the lesser offence of sending money to a terrorist organisation after the more serious charges were earlier dropped.

Outside court that day, Mr Stary, ever the activist, compared the Tamil struggle to “the Fretilin struggle in East Timor or the African National Congress struggle in South Africa”.

“This was a civil war,” he said. “Why the Australian government was acting at the behest of the Sri Lankan government no one will ever know.”

In 2008 he was summoned to Switzerland to meet with all other Tamil Tiger defence lawyers and is now representing Mr Narendran “precisely because we take an aggressive political view”.

The matter has seen the practitioner travel, at the time of writing, three times to Dubai in recent months, with the promise of at least one more trip.

Mr Narendran, a successful international telecommunications expert with offices in South Africa, Thailand, the UK, Russia and Dubai, has been charged with allegedly laundering money through 600 different bank accounts used to purchase arms out of Russia.

Mr Stary will also continue to liaise with other lawyers involved in the Julian Assange matter worldwide. He was hired in June last year to take care of Mr Assange’s Australian interests and quickly began petitioning on his client’s behalf in the court of public opinion to fight back against US and Australian government attacks.

In December 2010 he joined legal luminaries and a wave of public protest in criticising Prime Minister Julia Gillard, a former colleague at Slater & Gordon, over her handling of the Assange situation.

Last February he helped organise a public meeting at Melbourne’s Federation Square to protest the Assange case. Over 1000 people attended, furious that Australian authorities had not done more for the Australian citizen after he came under fire for leaking hundreds of thousands of secret government documents.

Mr Stary said his office had received anonymous phone threats related to the alleged activities of clients, from the gangland figures to terror suspects, although he said those communications had taken on a more supportive tone since he was linked with Mr Assange, who is facing sexual assault charges in Sweden.

In February 2010 he called for Australia to stop being “a loyal deputy sheriff” to the US and, over recent years, has become increasingly vocal in his views on issues ranging from law reform to the “political prosecution” of his clients and Australia’s terror legislation. He has been both criticised and congratulated for them.

Lawyer and Australian Greens federal MP Adam Bandt sees Mr Stary as a crusader for human rights.

“I am enormously impressed with his intentions and ethics. He has taken a stand for basic principles such as the rule of law and human rights in recent years while governments have shown an inclination to suspend them,” Mr Bandt said.

“He is acutely aware of the need to keep the public informed and there are a number of people in the legal community who are quite glad he is taking up the cudgels.

“And I believe he gets the balance right between his legal work and the public messages he delivers and, because he has been consistent over the years and conducted himself with integrity, his messages get through to the general public.”

Former Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions deputy director Mark Pedley, whose office ran terrorism-related cases against Mr Stary’s clients, said the lawyer was very passionate and committed to a client’s cause.

“He has developed a reputation in the anti-terrorism area and when he is on the other side you know the case will be analysed carefully and closely,” Mr Pedley said.

“He is also very good at encouraging young criminal lawyers and is a good contributor to the profession.”

However, others believe that he crosses the line in becoming an activist for his clients, that his public comments do not help in the courtroom, and that his view of high-level matters makes him more interested in shaping public opinion than helping clients.

The man himself is unapologetic.

“Lots of lawyers say I am too political and should not speak out as much and [should] work within the narrow confines of the justice system. That is a view held by a not inconsiderable group of people,” Mr Stary said.

“But it is a different game now and you have to be prepared to give the public an alternative view.

“A lot of people I respect don’t agree with that style and maybe those who came to the profession recently have a more robust view.

“We have to work beyond the narrow parameters of what we did 20 years ago. Cases today can be political prosecutions, and must be approached much differently to a low-level criminal case in the Magistrates’ Court.”

Mr Stary uses the Jack Thomas case to illustrate his point.

Mr Thomas was the first person charged under Australia’s anti-terrorism laws in 2003 before his October 2008 acquittal. Mr Stary was quick to step up and defend Mr Thomas inside and outside the courtroom from the public case being mounted against him.

“A politician said when he was arrested that Thomas was Osama Bin Laden’s white boy in Australia. There was never any evidence of that, but the damage is done,” Mr Stary said.

“Now he is seen generally, I think, as a sort of inconsequential figure who naively became involved in the reconstruction in Afghanistan 10 years ago.”

Up to now, Mr Stary is one of a few Australian lawyers to consistently work on terrorism cases. At a time when the weight of public opinion supported a crackdown on terrorist activities in the wake of the September 11 attacks, he defended the seemingly indefensible.

He attacked the Howard government over what he saw as law-making and terrorist hunts more fitting a political agenda than a real threat.

And he defended five of the 12 men accused in the Benbrika case of belonging to a Melbourne terrorism cell. One was acquitted, two partially acquitted, and two found guilty.

“In the Benbrika case, the (police) showed images of planned terrorist attacks on iconic landmarks, such as Flinders Street Station and Sydney Harbour, when in fact there was no specific plan or thwarting of a terrorist attack,” Mr Stary said.

“That is what we have to contend with. It becomes a propaganda war; the state uses all of its influences in a sophisticated way to contaminate the public view and that is why we have had to be vocal to counter this propaganda that comes out of government.

“Although it is now like the adage of the boy who cried wolf, if you keep embellishing, the public is going to get more cynical. I also think the courts are scrutinising things a lot more now than after 9/11 and the Bali bombings.”

He believes that, 10 years on from 9/11, it is time for a wholesale review of all terrorism-related laws.

With a substantial staff on board to ensure the bills get paid, Mr Stary takes on the terrorism and human rights work, sometimes pro bono, to satisfy his sense of justice and fairness.

He believes very strongly in the rule of law and that every person needs robust representation. And while he never moralises or makes value judgments about the people he is there to defend, the father of six admits to finding it personally difficult when dealing with people charged with child sex offences.

Likewise, the most draining cases for him involve young drug offenders “who have completely chaotic lives that you know are going to become ensconced in the system, statistically, for 10 years or thereabouts. They behave desperately, become alienated from their families.”

His extensive dealing with these young drug offenders over the decades has shaped his views on drug law and prison reform. Mr Stary also claims to be the “only lawyer you will ever meet who really speaks against their own financial self-interest” when he says that all drugs for personal use should be decriminalised.

“I just don’t think it is right we jail people without addressing all the issues and I think it should be treated as a social and medical problem first,” he said.

“And I get frustrated that the family interventions, the offers of support and employment and therapy rarely find their way to those from working class areas. It is not the ones from private schools but the impoverished who are in prison and that is dominated from people from the north and west of Melbourne.

“I don’t think the prohibition model can be allowed to continue when it is costly and does not produce the results. But the criminal justice system is structured in a way where it needs to have 100,000 people going through courts every year.

“It is also the basis of why I need 15 lawyers to run this business.”

His views on terrorism and the criminal justice system have seen him become a go-to man for the mainstream media seeking comment on a range of subjects, although he “tends to avoid commentary on criminal matters”.

He says he never said anything about Carl Williams prior to his death, but had plenty to say about the “fairly disturbing circumstances” in which he was killed.

“There was also some comment on (television program) Underbelly where we successfully sought a suppression order against the transmission of the balance of the show in Victoria,” Mr Stary said.

“Funnily enough the actual portrayal of the events was pretty authentic. Unfortunately, I think it has definitely had an impact on young people; you have a lot of young gangsters who think they are going to be the next big thing going through the courts today.

“I have certainly noticed a more brazen cavalier attitude in the last five years.”

Mr Stary also said he did not socialise with clients as a rule, but there were certain cases in which he had become personally invested.

Mr Stary represented 11 of the G20 protestors in the 2007–08 court proceedings that arose from an attack on police outside the G20 summit at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt Hotel in November 2006. Several protestors were eventually convicted but spared jail time.

Mr Stary described them as “inspirational” noting that one protestor, which the prosecution wanted jailed, worked in Asian orphanages.

He has also proclaimed an admiration for the Tamil community.

Peter Gordon said Mr Stary was one of the most dedicated lawyers he knew and would always do his best for clients.

“It is true Rob has political views, but I don’t think he would let that interfere with his work,” he said.

“If people say that he has been outspoken on this or that, it is because he is a very caring person and lawyer. I know he is foremost interested in ensuring a fair trial, due process, and is one of the most hard-working people I know.

“Basically, he is a great guy and a great lawyer.”

But Mr Stary’s devotion to work and various legal and social organisations, including the LIV Criminal Law Section from 1999–2009, has come at a personal cost.

He married his childhood sweetheart, but the pair divorced when he was 28. He remained with his second wife for 12 years before another divorce. He has been with his current partner for the past 12 years but they have not married.

With the benefit of hindsight, he concedes he spent too much time at work and that his personal relationships suffered as a result.

But he is proud of his “really close relationship with all my kids”, who range in age from five to 30, and the fact that two of his daughters now work for him.

“You live and breathe it 24 hours a day, that is the other harsh reality. The profession pays notional attention to having work-life balance, but it does not really happen to be honest,” he said.

“But one thing we try to do here is give people an extra week’s annual leave and we have arrangements within the partnership for extended leave every five years.”

Mr Stary quit the ALP aged 45 in 2002, frustrated at the social conservatism and overall direction of the Victorian branch. Today, he describes himself as Green-leaning and looking forward to what his personal and professional lives have waiting around the corner.

He is “pretty content” with how his career has panned out and says he has been fortunate to have always worked with good people.

“All my colleagues are smarter than me and have double honours degrees,” he pointed out. “I would not even get a job in my own firm nowadays.”

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