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Law's leading lights shine

Cover Story

Cite as: July 2015 89 (7) LIJ, p.19

The 2015 Law Institute of Victoria Awards celebrated the achievements of Victorian lawyers with a first - a red carpet evening event.

By Carolyn Ford

The morning after the 2015 Law Institute of Victoria Awards, master of ceremonies, broadcaster (and one-time solicitor) Jon Faine, was back at the 774 ABC microphone and in conversation with lawyer David Whiting told listeners that the event was a reminder of the great and often unsung work that lawyers do.

“What I loved about it was that among those who were awarded on the night, one law firm, Clayton Utz, was awarded for almost 500,000 pro bono hours so far, which is simply extraordinary,” Mr Faine said. “You had the big end of town doing the Medibank privatisation being recognised for that enormous job and then you had the Aboriginal violence prevention program’s Antoinette Braybrook being given an award. That was pretty good.

“The emphasis entirely was on people doing community work, people being recognised for volunteering for 20 years as the free lawyer to a charity or human rights test cases. It was really quite a gathering.”

There was glitz, glamour and dancing at the awards during Law Week in May – the first time it was a gala evening event.

Almost 400 guests walked the red carpet – a fitting entrance for what are known as Victoria’s legal Oscars – before going in to Atlantic restaurant on Harbour Esplanade, Docklands. The American Express-sponsored event kicked off with cast members from the musical Anything Goes, Caroline O’Connor and Alex Rathgeber, performing several numbers from the show.

LIV president Katie Miller told the audience, “You all look beautiful and I hope tonight’s glitz and red carpet make you all feel special – because you are special.

“As lawyers, we often forget in amongst the work of daily practice, that we serve a very special function for the community in upholding the rule of law and justice.

“Being a lawyer is about so much more than practicing law – it’s about making a difference, advocating for change and access to justice, asking the hard questions of lawmakers, helping others.

“Tonight is about the everyday lawyers who make a big difference in the legal profession and the community.”

The Paul Baker Award, which recognises achievement in the field of administrative or human rights law, was announced first. The winner was Kerin Leonard from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, for her work behind the scenes, supporting, shaping and improving the human rights culture of government agencies in Victoria.

“It’s privilege enough to do what I do every day serving the people of Victoria. It’s amazing to be given this award in the context of the work I know many people in the profession do on rights and justice issues,” said Ms Leonard, who donated the $1000 prize money to a human rights charity and also invited submissions to the review of the Charter of Human Rights currently underway.

“There are many challenges internationally and nationally on the human rights front that deserve our attention but I think events of recent weeks show us the importance of speaking loudly about human rights issues for everyone everywhere.”

The recent event Ms Leonard referred to was the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Rising Star of the Year winner Linda Rayment devoted her award to the memory of Andrew Chan.

“I would like to dedicate this award to my close friend Andrew Chan who tragically passed away two weeks ago. Andrew epitomised what it was to be a rising star. It was a privilege to work with him in all his rehabilitation programs. Andrew said, you have to be an advocate and defend those who can’t do it themselves. So I will endeavour to do that and I encourage you to do that too.”

The rights of sex workers and victims of human trafficking have been championed by Ms Rayment, who was admitted to practice in 2011. In 2014 this associate with Nicholes Family Lawyers co-founded the Human Trafficking Taskforce for Lawyers to eliminate trafficking in Australia.

In the same vein of helping others, Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria since its inception in 2002, won the Access to Justice Pro Bono Award.

Ms Braybrook, who has expanded the service to four offices and more than 30 staff, has been a powerful advocate for access to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, particularly victims of family violence.

“I can’t believe this has happened to me,” Ms Braybrook said of her award.

“We provide front line legal services to victims of family violence and 93 per cent of our clients are Aboriginal women and children.

“We started out as a national program and we went hell for leather building relationships in Victoria and funders have backed us 300 per cent. I can’t say the same federally. In my 12 years with the organisation, every day and every year has been an absolute challenge.”

But no more so than this year with effective cuts to the legal program. Funding has continued for another three years but with no increase or CPI indexation.

“I am not sure how we are going to do it but we will. This is despite the escalation of family violence but we will keep fighting and do what we have to do.

“For me, as an Aboriginal woman and a CEO, it is personal. It goes deep. It’s about making sure we make things right for generations to come.

“Aboriginal women remain the most disadvantaged group in Australia. An Aboriginal woman is 34 times more likely to be hospitalised for a violent assault and 10 times more likely to die from that assault.”

Ms Braybrook said Aboriginal women continue to remain invisible to policymakers.

“I don’t feel invisible tonight. It is the Aboriginal women we work with whose courage, strength and resilience, despite overwhelming odds, drives us. I want to thank and acknowledge them.”

Advocacy on behalf of the Gippsland Koori and Aboriginal communities contributed to John Sullivan of Sullivan Braham Pty Ltd winning Regional Lawyer of the Year. Cuts to legal aid made it harder to work as a lawyer in the area, he said.

“As an advocate maybe you can make a small difference as to whether a person gets a Community Correction Order or goes straight to jail. Without legal aid, more reliance is made on lawyers stepping forward to represent people with no reward.

“I know a lot of lawyers who are taking that work on with no thanks or credit.”

Help for victims of family violence also came from Elsie Stokie, winner of the Community Lawyer/Organisation of the Year, who established the Barwon Community Legal Service and co-wrote a plain English family law booklet for the community, which spawned a series of other publications.

“It’s a luxury being able to work in the law and do things I think are worthwhile. We have heard about access to justice, supporting the disadvantaged and lobbying for change to make a more equitable society. Well that’s pretty much what we try to do.”

Obtaining temporary visas for 110 asylum seeker children born in Australia but regarded by legislation as unlawful maritime arrivals was an achievement mentioned by Greg Tucker, CEO of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, which won Law Firm of the Year (less than 50 partners), and drew loud applause.

(For the first time this year, there were two categories for Law Firm of the Year – less than 50 partners and more than 50 partners.)

Founded in 1919, Maurice Blackburn is an example of a highly successful firm that meets the needs and challenges of the 21st century client while remaining true to its founding social justice principles, according to the LIV awards committee.

“The firm is an extremely strong business that has attracted talented and dedicated people to work within it. This has given rise to amazing levels of discretionary effort both in cases we take on every day and in cases we take on a pro bono basis.

“We have taken on the mantle of being Australia’s social justice law firm,” said Mr Tucker of the “powerhouse” which has 950 staff in 30 offices nationally.

Law Firm of the Year (more than 50 partners) went to Clayton Utz for its excellence in legal practice but also its pro bono work and commitment to social responsibility. In 2015 it will reach 500,000 pro bono hours – the most done by any firm in Australia and any outside the US.

Chief executive partner Rob Cutler said the firm was proud of its pro bono effort. It was part of its culture and also what the legal profession does and should do.

“We are very pleased to be near that half million hours, it’s very important. We all do it so congratulations to the legal profession for taking up the mantle of access to justice through pro bono,” Mr Cutler said.

Helping a Muslim client get appropriate health services was cited by Government Lawyer of the Year Skye Rose from Victoria Legal Aid’s equality law program as one of her greatest achievements in the past year.

Ms Rose managed to get a major health service provider to offer same-gender care for her Muslim client – and all other individuals when required in future – because of religious beliefs, cultural concerns and past trauma.

“It is incredibly rewarding to work for an independent arm of the public service that prides itself on keeping the government accountable,” Ms Rose said.

“This independence means that we can hold organisations to account and ensure they are fair and transparent in their decisions.

“We have a formidable team that is committed to achieving systemic change and the best possible outcomes for our clients and that’s something I am very proud of.”

Mentor of the Year went to legal consultant Russell Cocks who has contributed hundreds of hours as a presenter, consultant, adviser and mentor on property law. A household name and self-described “old war horse”, he is the author of 1001 Conveyancing Answers and the LIJ’s popular property column.

“A particular part of the LIV I thank is the Law Institute Journal. They have put up with me for a long time. Next month’s [June] column will be the 93rd so I am heading towards my first century. So I thank the Journal for giving me that exposure.”

Findlay McRae was chosen from 19,000 Victorian lawyers to win the President’s Honorary Award, the final award for the night.

“When it comes to government lawyers who achieve great things, the obvious choice was Findlay McRae, director, Legal Services, Victoria Police,” Ms Miller said.

“Fin is the exemplar of a modern government lawyer. He has to be across a range of areas of law – crime but also governance, commercial and procurement, personal injuries and torts and administrative law. Fin has to balance competing public interests in most of his functions and decisions. He does all of this without complaint, spotlight or, all too often, recognition.”

Mr McRae thanked Ms Miller for putting the spotlight on a government lawyer.

“Thank you to the Law Institute and congratulations to Skye Rose . . . it’s great to see government lawyers recognised for the public interest work they do.”

With that, the awards ceremony concluded and the dancing began.

Nominations for the 2016 Law Institute of Victoria Awards open in October.

2015 Legal award winners
  • President’s Honorary Award:
  • Findlay McRae
  • Director of Legal Services, Victoria Police
  • Access to Justice / Pro Bono Award:
  • Antoinette Braybrook
  • CEO Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and
  • Legal Service Victoria
  • Accredited Specialist Achievement Award:
  • Sam Eichenbaum
  • Rigby Cooke Lawyers
  • Community Lawyer/Organisation of the Year Award:
  • Elsie Stokie
  • Barwon Community Legal Service
  • Deal of the Year Award:
  • Joint Winners:
  • Medibank IPO, King & Wood Mallesons
  • and
  • Medibank Private Privatisation, Herbert Smith Freehills
  • Government Lawyer of the Year:
  • Skye Rose
  • Victoria Legal Aid
  • Law Firm of the Year Award (less than 50 partners):
  • Maurice Blackburn Lawyers
  • Law Firm of the Year Award (more than 50 partners):
  • Clayton Utz
  • Mentor of the Year Award:
  • Russell Cocks
  • Property law expert
  • Regional Lawyer of the Year Award:
  • John Sullivan
  • Sullivan Braham Pty Ltd
  • Rising Star of the Year Award:
  • Linda Rayment
  • Nicholes Family Lawyers
  • Suburban Lawyer of the Year Award:
  • Phillip Allen
  • Allen & Macaulay
  • Paul Baker Award:
  • Kerin Leonard
  • Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
  • Rogers Legal Writing Award:
  • Louise Fairbairn and Evelyn Young
  • Forte Family Lawyers
  • Certificates of Service:
  • Noel Jackling
  • Glen Ludbrook Central Highlands Community Legal Centre
  • Sue Macgregor Macgregor Barristers & Solicitors
  • Michaela Moloney K&L Gates
  • Ian Morrison William Murray
  • Sam Norton Stary Norton Halphen Lawyers
  • Bruce Pippett Bruce Pippett Legal Consultant
  • Fleur Ward Fleur Ward & Partners
  • Kathleen Wilson Aitken Partners
  • Mark Yorston Wisewould Mahony Lawyers

  • Carolyn Ford

    Legal exemplar

    The 2015 President’s Honorary Award recognises a dedicated public servant. by carolyn ford

    Once LIV president Katie Miller settled on a government lawyer receiving the 2015 President’s Honorary Award, the choice was easy – Findlay McRae, director, Legal Services, Victoria Police.

    “Mr McRae is a combination of government lawyer, in-house counsel and unsworn member of Victoria Police. Each aspect of his role requires highly developed skills and judgment,” Ms Miller said.

    “Combining the three aspects would be demanding on any lawyer – yet Mr McRae undertakes his tasks with a quiet sense of enjoyment, achievement and a wicked sense of humour.

    “He is a dedicated servant to the public and the justice system and, like so many government lawyers, his time for recognition is long overdue,” Ms Miller said.

    Mr McRae, 50, came to Victoria Police from the Supreme Court where he was CEO. That position was the culmination of a 16-year career in state and federal courts, beginning as a trainee clerk in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in 1988 (he was admitted to practice in 1999). But as his contract leading the Supreme Court neared its end, he wondered, what next?

    He got the challenge he sought when he became in-house counsel for Victoria Police, which has 15,000 members.

    “I didn’t know there were lawyers in Victoria Police. After the interview I said to my wife, ‘I don’t know if they understood what I said but I couldn’t understand a thing they said,’” Mr McRae recalled.

    Nine years later, the legal services director has a staff of 350, mostly police prosecutors, 10 specialist in-house lawyers and a legal advice service of 12 Victorian Government Solicitor lawyers who give advice to police.

    Mr McRae was Victoria Police’s first director of legal services and has established legal professionalism among the ranks.

    “I’ve set about building a legal practice. Now we’ve got practitioners for criminal, commercial, civil, employment, discrimination law, the Charter of Human Rights, policing powers and we have a family violence civil advocacy unit I am attempting to roll out across the state.”

    Mr McRae provides advice on major litigation, policy decisions and criminal cases and support to the Chief Commissioner of Police.

    “I provide advice on the legal issues of the day.

    “I really don’t know what’s going to happen each day in terms of what issues are going to come up,” Mr McRae said. “In 2009, I saw the Victoria Police turn into an emergency management organisation overnight in response to the bushfires. It was interesting and difficult.

    “My proudest experience has been the efforts of the Disaster Victim Identification team supporting the coroner, comprised of largely legal services staff, who worked seven-day shifts for three months to ensure all persons were identified after the bushfires to provide closure for families at a time of grief.

    “My role has included contributing to the police responses to the Commonwealth Child Sex Abuse Royal Commission and an appearance before the state Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations with the then Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton.

    “In criminal cases, I have focused on reducing delay through a policy of early disclosure of briefs to defence and early identification of pleas of guilty. The resultant reduction in contested hearings has meant that victims are not required to attend court unnecessarily and police witnesses are no longer waiting at court.

    “I look forward to coming to work because Victoria Police is focused on public safety. One minute you are dealing with general crime, the next it’s child safety issues. I love the diversity of it. It’s a 24-7 organisation.”

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