I feel privileged to have been asked to address you on the occasion of JATL’s fundraising event in support of RAILS.  This is partly because I don’t often have a captive audience of young people who I can inflict my ideas on.

The theme underlying my speech is why we choose to study law and become lawyers. For some people it is because they can earn bucketloads of money. For some, it is because of the prestige. But for many, it is because they see the law as a way of making a difference to peoples’ lives and to our society as a whole.

The importance of the work done by RAILS, its staff, its volunteers and its management committee cannot be overstated.  Often, it is literally life changing.  I will give you just one example.

Many years ago, I was briefed by RAILS to act for a man who had been accepted as a refugee and wanted to bring his family to Australia.  Their story was tragic.  The man had been abducted from his village in Somalia. He eventually escaped and returned, only to find that his village had been razed to the ground. His wife and his two young daughters had disappeared and were believed to be dead.  He made his way to a refugee camp and was eventually accepted as a refugee by Australia.  Two years later, he was contacted by the Red Cross and he was told that his family was not dead.  They had escaped and ended up in a refugee camp in Romania, where they were living in squalid conditions. 

With the assistance of RAILS, he applied for his family to join him in Australia.  The then Minister for Immigration refused one of his daughters a visa.  The reason was that she had cerebral palsy, and the Minister considered she would be too much of a drain on Australia’s resources.  Naturally, the client was distraught.  He had thought his family was dead, then found that they were alive, but could not be reunited with them.

We challenged the Minister’s decision in the Federal Court of Australia.  On the day before the hearing, the Minister changed her mind and reversed her decision.  Some may think it was cruel to keep the family separated for so long when the same decision could have been made a year earlier.  However, the family was finally reunited.  For them, the work done by RAILS was literally life changing.  This is only one of thousands of stories and only one example of the thousands of lives that RAILS has affected. 

This is the power and the beauty of the law – the ability to profoundly affect people’s lives.  You may find that cases like the one I have described are amongst the most satisfying of your career.  All areas of law are important, but long after the commercial disputes between large companies are forgotten, what remains are the cases where you have made a real difference to someone’s life.  That is why the staff, volunteers and management committee are so passionate about the work that RAILS does. 

Many of you have chosen to study law because you believe in the ideals of fairness, justice and equality in our society and the capacity of law to make a difference to people’s lives.  As students or graduates of the University of Queensland, you will be amongst the best and brightest of the next generation of lawyers.  You may not realise it yet, but you are the people who will mould and shape our system of law for the next 20 to 50 years, and by doing so, you will have a profound impact on the way that our society will look in the future. 

So what will the law, and our society, look like in 50 years time?  I have no idea.  But we can get some idea of the scale of change that will take place over the next 50 years by looking back and examining the law and society of 50 years ago, in 1967. 

The most important legal change in Australia in 1967 was the referendum held on 27 May that year. One of the questions asked, in effect, whether s 127 of the Constitution should be repealed.  Section 127 said: 

In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State, or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted. 

The referendum question was overwhelmingly answered “yes”, but it is astonishing to think that until then, Aboriginal people were not even recognised as part of the population of their own country.  The inclusion of s 127 in the Constitution seems to have been informed by a belief that the Aboriginal race would die out and also by attitudes such as that expressed by a member of parliament from Tasmania, Mr O’Mally who, in the parliamentary debates concerning the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (Cth), said about Aborigines “There is no scientific evidence that he is a human being at all”.

Incredibly, it was not until 1965 that Aborigines were allowed to vote in Queensland elections, following the Commonwealth giving Queensland Aborigines the right to vote in Commonwealth elections in 1962.  Today, there are many Aboriginal people who within their own lifetimes were disenfranchised in their own country.

Nowadays, if some politician suggested that Aborigines should be deprived of the right to vote, or that they should not be counted amongst the population of Australia, there would be astonishment and outrage.  When we look back at the society of 50 years ago, we wonder how people could possibly have thought like that, and how Aboriginal people could possibly have been treated like that. 

What I ask you to consider is this: in 20, 30 or 50 years’ time, what will people say about us?  What are the issues about which they will ask “How could they possibly have thought like that?”, or “How could they have treated people like that?”

There are several such issues that occur to me, such as our treatment of people with mental illnesses, the sexual abuse of children and the abuse of other vulnerable people.  I ask that you give consideration to the questions that I have posed because the first step in resolving a problem is to identify the problem.  Your generation of lawyers has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to identify and redress some of the great problems of inequality and injustice in our community. 

How do you do that? There are two ways. First, as lawyers you can use, shape and mould the law to make a much fairer, just and equitable society. When you look at the society of 1967, you see the legal and social repression of many groups which did not fit into the mainstream: for example, homosexuals, black people, people with disabilities and those who protested against the status quo, such as anti-Vietnam war demonstrators.  We know now of the rampant sexual abuse of children in care that authorities ignored. The changes made in these areas have been led by lawyers. In my opinion, they are changes much for the better.

The second way lawyers can redress inequality and injustice is by leading changes in societal attitudes. It is true that many lawyers are wealthy. Lawyers have a certain prestige in our society. Lawyers also wield great power because law is one of the most powerful forces in our society. With wealth, prestige and power, comes the ability to influence societal change. It is not just the Instagram models, You-Tubers and stars of “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!” who can influence social attitudes.

I want to briefly focus on one particular problem in our legal system and our society.  It is a problem so obvious and so fundamental that I wonder how we can have ignored it or done so little to address it for so long.  It is a legal issue as well as a societal problem. It is the problem of violence against women, including sexual assault and sexual harassment. 

All the progress that has been made towards equality in representation of women in parliament, in the judiciary and in the professions is meaningless to many women who are subjected to physical and sexual violence in Australian society.  It is a problem that has been ignored or inadequately addressed for too long. 

The statistics are chilling.  At least one woman per week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia.  One in four Australian women over the age of 15 has experienced physical violence.  One in five Australian women has experienced sexual violence. But the precise numbers matter less than the reality that our society can have tolerated such violent and degrading treatment of so many for so long.

We think of Australia as a civilized and enlightened society.  The statistics I have cited are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the brutal treatment of woman in many of the most populous countries in the world. 

In Pakistan and many countries in the middle-east, there are so called “honour killings”.  The United Nations estimates that some 5,000 woman are killed for this reason each year.  In India, the practice known as “bride burning” sees more than 8,000 woman killed per year.  These are women whose families do not pay the amounts demanded by their husband’s family for their dowry.  In Russia, domestic violence is endemic and is estimated that some 14,000 woman die from domestic violence each year.  There is presently a Bill before the Russian parliament to make moderate violence an administrative rather than criminal offence, not that there is real enforcement of criminal laws in domestic violence cases in any event.  In the USA, it is estimated that more than 20,000 calls are placed each day to domestic violence hotlines, and it is also estimated that the presence of guns in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide by 500%. 

There is overwhelming evidence that the astonishing level of violence against women stems from societal attitudes towards gender roles and expectations.  It seems obvious that the key to equal treatment of woman must be a societal belief that woman are equal to men.  Change must start with change in the attitude of men towards women.

There is considerable debate at the moment about whether Muslims have a responsibility to speak out against acts of terrorism perpetrated by other Muslims. What is surprising is that there has not been the same debate about the responsibility of men to speak out against the violence perpetrated by other men against women.

That gets me to really what I want to say tonight.  It is men who are the problem, not women, and it is therefore men that must be a major part of the solution.  As men, particularly men who are in a position of power and privilege, we have the responsibility to examine our own attitudes and to influence the attitudes of our peers.  It is a fact that men, particularly young men, are greatly influenced by their peers.  It is also true that domestic violence and sexual assault cross all socio-economic lines.  Any major change in the rates of violence towards woman must start with a change in societal attitudes towards woman and men must influence that change by speaking out against prevailing attitudes and against violence. 

As lawyers and potential lawyers, we have a position of great power and great privilege in our society.  We affect, influence and change one of the most powerful forces acting upon our society – the law.  Lawyers have the responsibility to use, to mould and to shape the law to produce a more equitable and just society. We also have a responsibility to use our positions to bring about changes in society’s attitudes towards legal issues.  Ask how people will look back at our society in 50 years. Ask what must change, and then do something about it.  That is the enormous contribution already made by the staff, the volunteers and management committee of RAILS, and by other community legal centers.

I have not wanted to deliver a polemic or diatribe tonight – although I may have.  However, it is not often that I have an audience of young lawyers and law students, and I thought that this is an important message to share.  I wish you all well in your careers. To return to the theme I started with, I hope that in between making a great contribution to the law and society, you enjoy all the wealth, prestige and success that a legal career brings.