MEMBERS OF the legal profession gathered at Parliament House last week for the 2008 Justice Awards.
The awards, presented by the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, recognised the inspiring efforts of individuals and organisations in improving access to justice for the socially and economically disadvantaged.
The 2008 Justice Medal, which recognises outstanding individual achievement, went to Jane Sanders, the director of the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre in Darlinghurst, who was described as a women who “frequently returns from court with more clients than she went in with, [and] who thinks nothing of offering her services on the spot to people in need”.
The keynote address was delivered by New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Virginia Bell, who spoke about the importance of ensuring that those accused of crime get a fair trial. “Respect for the rights and fair treatment of those accused of crime are central to our system of criminal justice, and on an occasion such as tonight’s dinner it’s worth reflecting how fortunate we are that it is so,” she said.
Justice Bell spoke in particular about the landmark High Court judgement R v Tuckiar, in which the High Court overturned the conviction of an aboriginal man, Tuckiar, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white Australian policeman.
The High Court acquitted Tuckiar, holding that he had not received a fair trial, firstly because the judge had misdirected the jury by telling them they could draw inferences from Tuckiar’s failure to give evidence, and secondly, because Tuckiar’s counsel had failed to properly defend him.
As Justice Bell pointed out, the decision was handed down in 1934, when the High Court comprised five white men who had all led relatively privileged lives, making the decision all the more admirable.
“There is no reason to think that they did not share the prejudices that were common to privileged professional men of their time. But what counted was their intelligence and fidelity to the principals of common law,” she said.
It was the same year, Justice Bell noted, in which Hitler assumed the office of Fuhrer of the German people and German Judges were applying the Nazi’s eugenics laws and when the United States’ Department of Justice was offering a $25,000 reward for the capture of John Dillinger “dead or alive”.
“[But] in Australia, the High Court entered a verdict of acquittal in the case of an Aboriginal man who had speared a white policeman, because the court that tried him had not given him what the law demanded — which was a fair trial according to the law,” she said.
The aftermath of the decision was not so admirable — Tuckiar disappeared after he was released from prison and probably murdered. However as Justice Bell pointed out, even in 1934 it was not just the High Court judges in Australia who saw the need for a fair trial.
“While the habits of the lynch mob had not died in some quarters of our society in 1934, it is worth noting that the High Court’s decision was not greeted with storms of protests. The unfairness of aspects of Tuckiar’s trial has been reported and there was a groundswell of public concern about his conviction and the imposition of the death penalty,” she said.