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Mum of five wins legal academic award

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Cite as: (2008) 82(6) LIJ, p. 31

Award-winning indigenous law student Josie Clements says her children were the inspiration that turned her life around.

Four-and-a-half years ago, Josie Clements was standing before a County Court judge as a 23-year-old mother of four children facing a potential jail term for deception.

Her life to that point had been a litany of hurdles to be overcome – she was born to 15-year-old parents, was pregnant at 17, experienced domestic violence and had seen first-hand alcoholism, petrol sniffing, the bleakness of an Aboriginal mission, gambling and crime.

Then a complete stranger gave her a break.

“I appeared in front of Judge [Tony] Duckett in Bendigo where I was looking at a jail term and I got a 12-month intensive corrections order,” Ms Clements said.

“He said to me: ‘It looks like you need a break in your life and I am going to be the person who is going to give it to you because you haven’t got it from anyone else’.

“That surprised me and the day I walked out of court was the day I literally walked away from everything I knew and straight into a women’s refuge, saying: ‘Please help, this is my situation’.”

Now the mother of five children aged 11 to two, and married for two years, Ms Clements’ life has been transformed.

She is studying law at Deakin University off-campus and was recently awarded the Blake Dawson prize for top student in contract law.

“That award floored me,” she said, adding, “Not bad for a housewife with five kids”.

Ms Clements said she had taken on the challenge of a law degree because of her frustration with both the criminal and family law system.

She said she had felt the stigma of being an Indigenous person from an Aboriginal mission, where she lived from the age of 14 to 16.

“I suppose my motivation and why I really wanted to do law in the first place was I had come through the worst of it and I was a tough person,” she said.

“And I thought there are a lot of other people out there who aren’t as thick-skinned as me who probably are slipping through the system and probably don’t have anyone who understands where they are coming from.”

Another motivation was to be a role model for her children and Ms Clements said her eldest daughter, Cody, was “rapt” in her efforts.

“It is like she has got bragging rights – her mum’s at uni and she thinks it’s cool.

“She helps me out and she nags me too, as in ‘Mum, you have got homework to do’.”

Ms Clements, who shares custody of two of her children and has all five of them every weekend and on school holidays, said the support of her husband, James, and the Institute of Koorie Education (Koori unit) at Deakin University in Geelong had been important.

Every two months she travelled to the family-oriented Koori unit to study intensively for two weeks, while her meals and accommodation were provided. Her children were also able to attend lectures with her.

Ms Clements said studying off-campus also meant she could fit study around her children’s needs, downloading lectures which she listened to in the car; taking part in evening telephone lectures; accessing lecture notes via the internet; and seeing a tutor at weekends.

She said she eventually wanted to practise criminal and family law, despite her strength being in commercial law.

“Everyone is an individual that deserves a fair go and not to be looked at just because of their background and where they are from,” she said.

“I hope that I look at every person who comes to me as if I am representing a bit of myself and when I am doing family law and criminal law, I will probably see some of myself in them.”

Indigenous Scholarship Winner

LIV member and Deakin University law student Jamie-Lee McConnachie, of Mt Isa, has been awarded a $5000 Robert Riley Scholarship which is awarded to young Indigenous people for the pursuit of studies in the fields of law, legal practice, human rights, child protection, criminology and criminal or juvenile justice.

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