Advocate winner urges lawyers to be a voice for change
Fiona McLeod SC, the winner of the Advocate Award, has called on lawyers to tackle gender discrimination within the profession and injustice everywhere outside it.
McLeod (pictured right), the chair of the Victorian Bar Council, was a popular winner of the prestigious Advocate Award at the Lawyers Weekly Australian Law Awards, proudly sponsored by List A Barristers, in Melbourne on Friday night (26 July).
Unable to attend due to work commitments in the Northern Territory, McLeod pre-recorded a powerful acceptance speech that was played to around 200 people who were gathered at the awards ceremony at Crown Casino.
“The true calling of the advocate for me is to serve as one can in the pursuit of justice for everyone, including, and perhaps especially, the unlucky,” she said. “It is that calling that brings the greatest professional satisfaction and that which strengthens our democracy and secures it for the future.”
McLeod is someone who has lived by that dictum in the course of her legal work for more than two decades.
She has been one of Australia’s foremost campaigners in seeking to eradicate human trafficking. McLeod has been instrumental in negotiating significant legislative change on behalf of trafficked persons, including visa protections, with much of her work for numerous pressure groups, including Anti-Slavery Australia, Project Respect, Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans and the Salvation Army, being done on a pro bono basis.
McLeod, a winner of the Anti-Slavery Australia Freedom Award in 2011, drew on her work in this area when accepting the Advocate Award.
She cited one particular case where she acted for a 13 year-old Thai child who had been trafficked to Australia to work in a brothel and raped 100 times by the age of 13.
“The courage she had to stand up to her traffickers, leading to their conviction, and to engage me and others to seek compensation for the wrong she suffered was enormous, and she was punished for her bravery by those who trafficked her,” she said.
“Once you realise that a terrible wrong is being done to one child when your own is safe at home or at school, how can we not act to protect them, wherever they may come from?
“This is why we keep at it.”
McLeod, who led the Commonwealth legal team in the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry in 2011-12 and also the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission in 2009-10, also helped to set up a pro bono scheme for victims of the Victorian bushfires.
Be conscious of bias
In addition to regularly acting for victims of injustice, McLeod has held a number of senior positions within the profession where she has been an advocate for diversity and equality.
The senior counsel of a decade standing has led both Australian Women Lawyers and the Women Barristers Association in the past. She is also currently the chair of the Law Council of Australia’s Equalising Opportunity in the Law Committee, which has oversight with regard to the National Attrition and Reengagement Study currently being undertaken.
“Women still face unconscious bias in the professional world, including the law, and are denied the opportunity to shine,” she said. “It is time for us to use our voice as men and women and to refuse to be content with benign pursuits.”
McLeod’s good friend and colleague at Melbourne’s Owen Dixon Chambers West, Caroline Kirton SC, accepted the Award on her behalf on the night.
Clutching her mobile phone in one hand with McLeod on the other end of the line from the Northern Territory (pictured below with MC Rob Carlton), Kirton got the biggest chuckle of the night when she explained to McLeod “I have to say a few words Fi” before passing off the phone to accept the trophy.
“I have known Fiona for my entire professional career and she is an absolute inspiration,” said Kirton. “She works so hard doing pro bono work for so many people and it is a fabulous choice.”