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Discrimination expert heads up PIAC

Discrimination expert heads up PIAC

Human rights and discrimination law expert Edward Santow has joined the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) as Chief Executive Officer in what he says is his dream role.Santow, who took up…

Human rights and discrimination law expert Edward Santow has joined the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) as Chief Executive Officer in what he says is his dream role.

Santow, who took up the position on 11 October after leaving his post as an academic at the University of New South Wales, has an impressive professional history.

"To be honest, I absolutely loved [being an academic]. The autonomy that you have ... to do research on any area you want is just fantastic and a real gift," Santow told Lawyers Weekly.

"I could easily have stayed there for many years, so it had to be a pretty amazing option to prise me off my nice warm academic rock. But what [this position] allows me to do is marry together all of the things that, professionally, are really important to me: litigation, law reform and policy, and also education and training. So, in that sense, it's a bit of a dream job."

Santow is taking the reins in an organisation which is already well-established and respected, but he is still determined to drive change, particularly in relation to working more collaboratively with other organisations in order to better provide access to justice.

"[I want PIAC] to work more collaboratively with other organisations that operate in the same area as us. For example, PIAC has been running a project called the Homeless Persons Legal Service (HPLS) for the last couple of years, and it has been a really successful model for integrating legal and other services for people that have quite complex needs and problems," explained Santow.

"Obviously, you can refer a person on to other organisations, but if you can create a sort of one stop shop, where you service all of their needs, then that is the ideal."

Santow is also committed to tackling the all-too-familiar thorn in the side of most public agencies: underfunding.

"We have been very fortunate to have been given funding from the NSW Public Purpose Fund, which comes from the dues that lawyers pay each year, and we are very grateful for that. But we also need more funds from other sources in order to do the work ... that we know can create real benefits for the community. Securing a more diversified funding base will probably be one of the biggest challenges," he said.

And Santow has already begun to effect change, being part of a significant development in relation to improving access to justice for disadvantaged citizens after gaining a victory in a case in which wheelchair-bound Julia Haraksin brought a complaint against Murrays Australia.

PIAC is representing Haraksin in a discrimination claim after she tried to book a seat on a Murrays coach from Sydney to Canberra, but was told her booking could not be accepted because she is in a wheelchair.

Last week, Justice Nicholas of the Federal Court agreed to cap costs in the matter, thus removing any financial barriers to the litigation.

"There are all kinds of barriers to even getting your foot through the door of a court. The prospects of an adverse costs order is a real disincentive to people starting cases," said Santow.

"The costs can be enormous and can, in certain cases, leave a litigant bankrupt. This is a really important way of increasing access to justice for ordinary people. The more we can do that kind of thing, the better."

As well as UNSW, Santow has previously worked at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, the Australian Law Reform Commission, and as a consultant on discrimination law to the European Union.

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