Fighting conviction

Ron Heinrich AM has spent his life using his voice and position to fight for the rights of those who don’t have any. Stephanie Quine speaks to the TressCox Lawyers veteran.

Promoted by Digital 25 April 2013 Big Law
Fighting conviction
expand image

Ron Heinrich AM has spent his life using his voice and position to fight for the rights of those who don’t have any. Stephanie Quine speaks to the TressCox Lawyers veteran.

Ten years ago, Ron Heinrich AM stood before several hundred lawyers and said something rather unfashionable. Escalating violence in Zimbabwe had forced the 13th Commonwealth Law Conference (CLC), where he was speaking, to move from Harare to Melbourne. 

President Mugabe was threatening to kill all whites in the country rather than submit to free and fair, internationally supervised elections. 

At home, democracy was intact but tension over terrorism had reached breaking point. Still reeling from the shock of the Bali bombings and September 11 attacks, the Government introduced a Bill to allow the detention without charge of anyone believed to have information on terrorist activity. 

In Guantanamo Bay, a former rodeo rider from Adelaide was already feeling the full force of such coercive measures. 

Heinrich was quick to take a stand. Using his position as then-president of the Law Council of Australia (LCA), he publicly accused the Australian and US governments of responding to lawlessness with lawlessness. 

“Whatever you might think about David Hicks, he was entitled to a proper trial, and not [one] before a tribunal like the US military tribunals that were set up,” says Heinrich.

The conviction in his voice is as strong now as it was when he urged the US Supreme Court to uphold the detainee’s basic legal rights.

It’s a conviction the media has latched onto since, but Heinrich’s voice was a lonely one in April 2003.

More than a job

It is curious as to how a boy from the wheat-covered hills of Temora set out on a journey with TressCox Lawyers and rose through the ranks of Australia’s professional associations.

Like many successful leaders, Heinrich had parents who were very focused on education. When he finished his Leaving Certificate in 1965 with good results, the country had just seen the introduction of wheat quotas, and wool prices were at an all-time low.

“I had five brothers and sisters and living on the land wasn’t a terribly good future to look forward to,” says Heinrich.

As luck and a bit of encouragement would have it, his father was friendly with one of the local solicitors in Temora, who had contacts in Sydney. 

Heinrich began his five years of articled clerkship at TressCox on decimal currency day, 14 February 1966, and has been there ever since.

“I had the great opportunity to grow up during the time when lawyers were all-rounders,” says Heinrich.

One day he would act in a criminal case in the local court, the next he’d be seeing prisoners in jail and then doing a company takeover. Bail applications and visits to the police station were as common as property sale advices and equity court cases. 

Guided by his master solicitor Alan Mylechreest, Don Lawson, a partner who worked at then Tress Cocks & Maddox, and John Maddox, a founder of the firm, Heinrich picked up strong general knowledge of the law and was eventually made a corporate and commercial partner.

For most lawyers, that would have been enough. 

Long hours in committee meetings were not compulsory to an engaging 40-year career in the law, but Heinrich did them anyway.

As president of the LCA, he advocated for a national legal services market and sensible tort reform; as president of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association (CLA), from 2007 to 2009, he made practical improvements, including the introduction of teleconferences, facilities for corporate membership and restructuring of its constitutional arrangements.

Fighting for rights

Perhaps more significantly though, Heinrich was adamant about using the rule of law as more than just a slogan. 

“He was determined, as president [of the CLA] to get its members to discuss issues within the Commonwealth where the law was actually a source of injustice,” said former High Court judge Michael Kirby.

Kirby described the “quiet, methodical” way Heinrich added HIV AIDS, sexuality and capital punishment to the agenda of a CLC in Hong Kong in 2009.

He was not deflected by the discomfort and opposition of some of his homophobic and traditionalist colleagues, said Kirby, nor was he interested in office for its own sake.

Through quiet diplomacy Heinrich canvassed the views of those for and against capital punishment and led CLA council members from more than 20 countries around the Commonwealth to unanimously adopt a policy opposed to the practice.

On the more difficult topic of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, Heinrich decided that the CLA couldn’t get a policy, but could at least get discussion going.

“Thanks to old British laws that were transported with colonialism … it was much more difficult,” says Heinrich.

Through his persuasiveness, the CLA executive eventually agreed to issue a statement opposing criminal sanctions on homosexuals. 

A humble man, Heinrich credits the achievement to a speech given by Kirby at the conference.

“Kirby walked into a packed auditorium of people ready to attack him … threw away [his speech] and stood in the doorway to stop people walking out, and then he gave people this fantastic address, which was a very scholarly address, on the history of [criminal sanctions on homosexuals] and why those laws were a bad thing, and by the end of the discussion … even those who were probably still not convinced were at least respectful of his views and that was something that will live with me for a long time,” says Heinrich. 

Another experience he won’t forget is his role in submitting a number of briefs to the US Supreme Court calling for the proper treatment of detainees in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility.

“The first brief we filed had to do with the right of Habeas Corpus; that is the right of a prisoner to be called to trial,” explains Heinrich.

“What I found very disappointing in the first few years when I travelled to the US to speak about it was that because the [US] president thought it was a good idea ... practically no [lawyers] in the US had a bad word to say about Guantanamo Bay.”

While that view has changed, it was Heinrich’s persistence, and that of CLA members and many others, which led to the release of hundreds of prisoners who were allegedly subjected to torture and wrongfully detained.

Judgment in favour of that first CLA brief was handed down in June 2008 and extensive extracts from it were cited in the majority judgment.

“It was a pretty ordinary time in history … but it can show you how fragile the rule of law is,” says Heinrich.

The erosion of rule of law in Australia might be less blatant than a question of the torture of suspected terrorists or a military coup in Fiji, but Heinrich sees it just as clearly and fights it with equal fervour.

Currently acting for the directors of Cascade Coal in the ICAC corruption proceedings, Heinrich says Australians don’t appreciate just how fragile democracy is in this country.

“There has been transference of government to the executive, and the executive power is encroaching on our democratic rights, and I think we will need, in future, to be very careful about that,” he says.

Power and responsibility

When he took up the presidency of the NSW Law Society, a former president of the body offered Heinrich a piece of advice.

“He said ‘the day you sit in the chair as president, that’s the day your life changes and the day you know whether you’re up to the job or not’, and it’s so true,” says Heinrich.

“You come to know about lots of things that are going on in government and within the judicial system on an entirely confidential basis.”

“It’s like a revolving door up there at Phillip Street. You start at seven o’clock in the morning; you have a breakfast meeting with maybe the Minister for Justice from China or the attorney-general from India.”

As president, Heinrich worked closely with the then Attorney-General Jeff Shaw QC, who he says used to ring him up for advice on the passage of certain legislation.

But with power comes responsibility; something Heinrich is acutely aware of. 

To him, lawyers have an obligation to act as a collective voice in advocating for legal institutions and the rule of law.

In January, Heinrich was recognised for this vision with an Order of Australia appointment. 

Thousands of congratulatory messages rained in, thanking him for a life of service that has helped improve the human rights of many.

National law firm Holding Redlich has established a three-year partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne.

Latest articles