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Magistrates boost for Children’s Court


Cite as: (2008) 82(12) LIJ, p.32

The appointment of three new magistrates to the Children’s Court forms part of a $6.5 million funding boost for the Court in the 2008-09 state Budget. In announcing the appointments, Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls said the commitment of two new full-time magistrates and an acting magistrate would help reduce delays in the Court’s Family Division.

Children offer hope to magistrate
Supreme Court Justice Frank Vincent and former Victorian Health Minister Marie Tehan both played pivotal roles in the career of magistrate Jane Gibson.

After completing law at Monash University in 1986 and then articles at Godfrey Stewart & Co, Ms Gibson said she was not particularly interested in pursuing a career in law.

But family friend, the late Marie Tehan, sent Ms Gibson a copy of a job advertisement for the position of associate to Justice Vincent.

Ms Gibson was successful and spent two years with Justice Vincent – years that influenced how her legal career would progress.

“Justice Vincent has been really influential in me deciding to go into criminal law as a barrister, so he was a great mentor in many ways,” she said.

“I wouldn’t have stayed in the law if it wasn’t for Justice Vincent and the opportunity he gave me.”

Ms Gibson said she had also learnt from Justice Vincent a “sense of fairness and giving people a voice”.

Justice Vincent’s enthusiasm about his experiences as a barrister in the Northern Territory also encouraged Ms Gibson to take leave from the Bar to work in legal aid in the Territory from 1995-97.

Ms Gibson also said that Ms Tehan, who was a lawyer before becoming a Kennett government minister, had been a role model for her.

“She was the only woman I knew that worked full-time and had a family and I just thought she was fantastic,” Ms Gibson said.

Ms Gibson, who has two children, joined the Victorian Bar in 1990 and worked as a barrister for 10 years before joining Victoria Legal Aid in 2001 where she worked in family, youth and civil matters.

In 1991, she did a three-month stint at the Jesuit Refugee Service in Hong Kong, giving advice to Vietnamese refugees.

“That was the hardest thing I have ever done,” she said.

“It was so depressing with horrible conditions and really almost hopeless work. I just didn’t feel I was getting anywhere or really helping anyone. There just really wasn’t much hope there and I found that very hard.”

It was on her return that Ms Gibson started working with children.

“There is so much hope in working for children,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how bad it is, there’s always some hope that you are going to make a difference, that if you put in the right services they will overcome their difficulties.”

For this reason, Ms Gibson was happy she had been appointed a Children’s Court magistrate.

“That’s where the majority of my work was and it is such an important Court. I am just delighted I have got the opportunity to work there.”

Career takes dream turn
After 11 years at Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), Sharon Smith thought it was time for a new direction in her career so she went into partnership with Andrew Hale to form the law firm Hale & Smith.

But just five months later, her career took another big turn when she was offered the position of a magistrate with the Children’s Court.

“For 11 years I stayed in the one spot at legal aid and then I made a move and another one followed immediately after,” Ms Smith said.

Ms Smith said she had been enjoying running her own law firm, but when the offer of a magistrate’s position came along there was no hesitation.

“This is something I have had on a dream list for a long time,” she said.

“This is an unexpected and fantastic opportunity that just came out of the blue and I just feel privileged to be given that opportunity.”

Ms Smith, 39, grew up in the northern Mallee region and moved to Melbourne where she completed her law degree at Melbourne University in 1993.

She completed her articles at Pryles & Defteros and then worked as a solicitor at Slater & Gordon for a year and then Stary George for a year.

In 1996, Ms Smith started working at VLA; first as a duty lawyer, then as a specialist committals advocate and then as inhouse counsel conducting trials and pleas primarily in the County Court.

“I just loved the work and the people. It was a dynamic place to work and I never had a reason to leave,” she said of her time at VLA.

When she did decide to leave and go into private practice, Ms Smith said it was because she thought she needed a new direction.

Also, she had a desire to return to the “hustle and bustle” and grassroots work at the Magistrates’ Court.

Ms Smith, who has two young daughters, will now be achieving that goal from the Bench – while her former law partner, Andrew Hale, continues the practice on his own.

Ms Smith cited two former women magistrates as role models for her in her new position – County Court judges Barbara Cotterell and Lisa Hannan.

Ms Smith said that when she was a committals advocate, she admired the way the two women ran the dynamic and busy Committals Court.

“They were both all-rounders in the sense they always treated people with the utmost respect – both the practitioners and clients – and they got through an enormous workload,” Ms Smith said.

“They were just really professional, hard-working, incredibly respectful women – people you look up to.”

Prepared for life on the Bench
Experience as a legal member of the Medical Practitioners’ Board has helped Francis Zemljak prepare for life as a magistrate.

“The regulation and disciplinary work was very challenging and very interesting,” Mr Zemljak said of his time on the Board.

“I had to deal with legally and factually complex situations ... it’s been great preparation for what I am doing now.”

Mr Zemljak was on the Board from 2006, and was previously on the Guardianship and Administration Board from the mid-1990s. When this merged into VCAT, he became a sessional member of the Guardianship and Anti-Discrimination Lists.

Mr Zemljak, 50, who was appointed an acting magistrate to the Children’s Court for a five-year term, has worked as a barrister and solicitor across country Victoria and Melbourne.

After completing his law degree at Monash University in 1980, Mr Zemljak completed practical legal training at Leo Cussen Institute and then spent two years at Riordan & Riordan in Shepparton.

He joined the Victorian Bar in 1983 and then worked at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service for two years before moving to Warrnambool law firm Mackay Taylor & Co from 1987-2001.

On his return to Melbourne, Mr Zemljak was a family law specialist and went to McKean Park where he was a partner and ran the family law department for 10 years.

He then headed the family law department at Coadys Solicitors before moving to Tolhurst Druce & Emmerson.

Throughout his legal career, Mr Zemljak has been involved in community and pro bono work, beginning as a second-year law student volunteering at the St Kilda Legal Service.

In 1996 he was presented with the PILCH award for pro bono services, and in 2003 he received a Centenary of Federation Medal for community service.

Mr Zemljak has also been involved in the LIV’s Criminal Law and Family Law Sections.

He said three people had been important influences in his legal life:

  • feminist academic and barrister Renata Alexander, whom he met at the St Kilda Legal Service, for her inspirational community work;
  • Simon Smith at the Springvale Legal Service for his dedicated and passionate commitment to law reform; and
  • Richard Park at McKean Park for being inspirational and for his commitment to quality legal service.

“These three people have had a big influence on me ... in the way I have shaped my legal career,” Mr Zemljak said.



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