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President: Equality before the law

Cite as: September 2012 86 (09) LIJ, p.04

By Michael Holcroft, LIV President

Lawyers have a responsibility to act as community leaders.

One of the more pleasurable aspects of the role of LIV president is that it provides the opportunity to address audiences about things that he, or she, is passionate about.

On 9 July, I addressed 530 law students at the Australian Law Students’ Association (ALSA) conference gala dinner.

The theme of the ALSA conference was “Tomorrow’s leaders”. I emphasised that as lawyers we hold a privileged position, but with that privilege comes responsibility. One of our responsibilities is to act as community leaders.

I spoke to the law students about the importance of:

  • the rule of law;
  • equality before the law;
  • the role of lawyers as officers for the administration of justice, officers of the court; and
  • the final defence of the unpopular cause.

These are themes that resonate with me and permeate many of the speeches I deliver.

I told the ALSA audience that when I was born, Indigenous Australians did not have the right to vote. They, I and (I hope) the readership of this column now find the concept of denying the right to vote based on skin colour or ethnicity as abhorrent. If we, as lawyers, believe in equality before the law, this must be so.

I encouraged these young law students to be active in lobbying for changes, based on the principles that we hold dear. I also told them, in no uncertain terms, that if they did not believe in equality before the law, then they should get out of the law, as there was no place for them here.

Taking equality before the law to its logical conclusion, we cannot justify different taxation, superannuation or civil union laws for same sex couples, from those applying to traditional heterosexual couples.

I know that many of our members have strong religious beliefs. I respect their rights to hold and practise these beliefs. A tolerant society demands this.

Under the Australian Constitution though, the power to legislate on “marriage” is vested in the federal Parliament, not the church.

So while “gay marriage” may not be supported by a number of our members for religious reasons that I well understand, the position of the LIV is that the principle of equality before the law, taken to its logical conclusion, requires that same sex couples and heterosexual couples be treated equally.

I challenged those law students to lobby for causes they believe in. I speculated that perhaps in 20 years a future LIV president would speak to such a gathering and recall that in 2012 the two major Australian political parties were agonising over whether to allow a conscience vote on gay marriage.

Perhaps in 20 years those law students will wonder how that could be so just as I ask how it could be so that we denied the vote to Indigenous Australians until 1967.

The unpopular cause need not always be unpopular.

Civil rights and human rights, I hope, will prevail.

While I accept some of our readership will not accept my position (or the LIV position) on gay marriage, hopefully all will respect my right to express my views.

Some might even recognise my passion for Indigenous rights, equality before the law and human rights. Space in this column does not allow me to adequately voice my disgust at the state of Australian politics on the issue of asylum seekers and the continued push for offshore processing of refugees.

In this column, I hope to highlight a few passions that remain unfulfilled working in an office practising commercial and property law. Those passions and beliefs are very much why I was attracted to stand for membership of the LIV Council and, ultimately, the LIV presidency.

I have said many times, that the president of the LIV is a custodian. Hopefully, each president adds a little to the LIV on the way through.

On 4 September 2012, I will launch the LIV’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Work began several years ago and the RAP has been supported by each of the presidents I have served under – Tony Burke, Danny Barlow, Steve Stevens and Caroline Counsel should all be very proud of what they have added to the LIV. The RAP features prominently in this issue of the LIJ, (see “It’s a RAP”, page 21). Thanks must go to co-chairs of our RAP committee Richard Wilson and Abigail Burchill, as well as to the LIV policy officer Laura Helm, who has worked so passionately and diligently to see the RAP come to fruition.

The RAP is a small step for lawyers, to make a difference to society and our communities. The RAP is intended as a “working document” and I encourage all LIV members to take the time to consider it.

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