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Remembering a legal aid warrior


Cite as: October 2009 83(10) LIJ, p21

More than 20 years after his death, the work of legal aid maverick Tim McCoy continues.

Tim McCoy is remembered by those who loved him as a legal service crusader, civil libertarian, student radical, community worker, solicitor, political activist, larrikin, law teacher and inspiration. But, sadly, they all say, his work was unfinished.

So highly regarded was Mr McCoy, who died suddenly in 1987 aged 31, that an annual award has been named in his memory to celebrate those practitioners who have made a difference to the wider community.

The speaker at this year's 20th memorial dinner, to be held on 6 November at the Richmond Town Hall, is High Court Justice Virginia Bell, formerly a solicitor with the Redfern Legal Service.

In previous years, speakers have included former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner (1985), Indigenous leader Noel Pearson (1996), World Vision's Tim Costello (1997), Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls (2000), Chief Magistrate Ian Gray (2001) and barristers Julian Burnside (2003) and Stephen Keim (2007).

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke at the dinner last year.

Friend, former colleague and Tim McCoy Trust trustee, Simon Smith, said the award had become akin to the AFL's Brownlow Medal in legal aid circles.

"Not only does it provide positive role models for new people in the profession but it also serves to affirm and verify those working hard at the coalface: those who do not always receive the material and other rewards that others in the profession may receive," Dr Smith said.

"That is what Tim personified and having 200 people in a room celebrating you 22 years after you have died is a fair test of your achievements and character.

"Tim seemed to be able to bridge the divides. He united people and was able to change things and maintained his passion against the odds in so many different fields until his death."

Dr Smith said many past award winners, such as the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre (2004), had been at the cutting edge of important social issues and had run campaigns and achieved law reform "on the smell of an oily rag".

Dr Smith said that, from the time of his admission in 1980, Mr McCoy worked for the underprivileged and brought to this task a talent, energy and knowledge of the law that would have given him a lucrative living in private practice.

He found time for outside activities that included giving community law education lectures, tutoring final-year law students, and lobbying for better conditions for prisoners, single mothers, welfare recipients and others in need.

He had worked in the Fitzroy, Nunawading, Western Suburbs and Springvale legal centres.

Mr McCoy, who graduated in commerce and law from Melbourne University, became a nationally recognised authority on community legal funding and management.

He also became the sole national representative of community legal centres for three years - a position that allowed him to describe himself as the "national body" - and advocated in areas as diverse as police powers, prisons, privacy, youth and legal aid.

The man, who wore bright yellow and red overalls and a watermelon earring at a time when not to wear a tie as a lawyer was radical, was also instrumental in organising the Victorian anti-ID card lobby.

Shortly before his death he became known for his "chocolate éclair diplomacy" after sharing a plate of the home-cooked treats with then Police Commissioner Michael Miller.

In the weeks before the pair had traded letters in The Age and then privately on proposed penalties for careless drivers and other legal concerns.

Dr Smith said the fact the pair shared the pastries was significant as it came at a time when the police and community legal centres had a confrontational relationship.

Mr McCoy died of an asthma-induced heart attack.

A 10 November 1987 news story in The Age was titled "All sides of the law respected fighter for people on wrong side of the law".

For further details on the memorial dinner contact Simon Smith on email or ph 9531 5278.

Jason Gregory


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