Legal Leaders: Candidly Catherine Branson, Australian Human Rights Commissioner

Legal Leaders: Candidly Catherine Branson, Australian Human Rights Commissioner

03 March 2012 By Lawyers Weekly

From law student to Crown solicitor, Federal Court judge to Human Rights Commissioner, Catherine Branson QC has helped forge a path for women in the legal profession. She opens up to Claire…

From law student to Crown solicitor, Federal Court judge to Human Rights Commissioner, Catherine Branson QC has helped forge a path for women in the legal profession. She opens up to Claire Chaffey about breaking the glass ceiling.

To watch our video interview with Catherine Branson, as she discusses her heroes, hopes and human rights, click here.


When a young Catherine Branson began studying law at the University of Adelaide in the late 1960s, the world was a very different place. Men ruled the roost from a hauteur known by very few women; studying law was viewed as a privilege reserved largely for upper-class males; and attitudes towards women who dared venture into the closed world of law teetered between misguided condescension and downright disparagement.

Branson's own family, for one, thought her attainment of a law degree would be a terrific advantage when she eventually took up a position as a legal secretary - until, of course, she found herself a suitable husband and left the workforce altogether.

However, just one year before Branson commenced her law degree, fellow South Australian Roma Mitchell did the unthinkable: she was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia, thus becoming the first woman in Australia's history to join the judiciary.

New South Welshwoman Mary Gaudron was also blazing a trail through the legal profession and, in the late '60s, was making a name for herself at the staunchly male NSW Bar, despite facing significant gender-related barriers (she would, in 1987, go on to be appointed the country's first-ever female justice of the High Court of Australia).

For Branson, both women were living, breathing proof that gender discrimination in the unapologetically traditional and male-dominated legal profession could be overcome.


Her admiration for Mitchell and Gaudron also compelled her to take gender-driven aspersions in her stride as she progressed from law student to articled clerk and, in 1973, going into private practice.

"I still remember, and smile about, being introduced by my principal, when I was an articled clerk, to a leading member of a long-established Adelaide law firm. He was expressing astonishment to find out that I was an articled clerk, and not just a clerk," recounts Branson.

"He asked whether I had a law degree. I said that I had, and indeed had nearly finished an arts degree as well. Immediately he expostulated, 'My gosh, your parents have wasted a lot of money on your education, haven't they?'"

Rising through the ranks

While Gaudron and Mitchell were among her heroes, Branson says her career advancement was helped by a small number of male mentors who demonstrated confidence in her and helped her to develop skills as an advocate.

According to Branson, these mentors surfaced when she left private practice, completed her arts degree and, in 1976, entered the more liberal world of the public sector.

"... a leading member of a long-established Adelaide law firm was expressing astonishment to find out that I was an articled clerk, and not just a clerk"

"It is fair to say that my career blossomed in the public sector because, generally speaking, the public sector accepted the need for, and indeed the benefits of, equal employment opportunity well ahead of the private legal profession," she says.

"It is also fair to say that whilst young men were assumed to be competent, a young woman, at that time, had to establish some evidence of competence to get to the same starting position."

That starting position for Branson - in the public sector, at least - was a role as researcher for the solicitor-general of South Australia, which she commenced in 1976. Here Branson was taught, and became fascinated by, the concept of the relationship between citizen and state and the importance of law and legal principle to the proper understanding of that relationship.

Branson says the solicitor-general at the time, Brian Cox QC, also taught her "the importance of thorough preparation and the setting of high standards for oneself in all things" - something that has stayed with Branson throughout her career.

In 1978, she began working as a solicitor in the Office of the Crown Solicitor of South Australia. According to Branson, it was the confidence the then crown solicitor, Graham Prior QC, showed in her as a lawyer that allowed her to develop greater self-confidence and hone her skills as an advocate.

Branson with former South Australian attorney-general Chris Sumner in 1984
Ultimately, though, it was South Australian attorney-general Chris Sumner who set Branson on a path that would define her career. In 1984, Sumner appointed Branson, who was by then 35 years of age, to the dual positions of crown solicitor of South Australia and secretary of the Attorney-General's Department.

While delighted, Branson admits she was somewhat taken aback by the offer. "It was not an office I had ever expected to fill, and the offer to take up that appointment whilst so young came entirely out of the blue," she says. "And, I suspect, it transformed my later career."

Branson's later career would include an appointment as Queen's Counsel in 1992 and her ascension to the bench of the Federal Court in 1994.

She is aware that at the time of her appointment to the position of crown solicitor, critics attributed her rise to the fact that she is a woman. While she disputes this, she does acknowledge that, as attitudes and expectations changed over the years, her gender may have eventually become advantageous.

"Contrary to many people, I don't think I was appointed crown solicitor because I was female. There were other reasons for that," she says. "But I probably was appointed to the Federal Court bench earlier than I would have been had I been a man.

"I thought it appropriate to accept the appointment in those circumstances because of the very real public value I then thought there was in having more women in our superior courts."

A trusted adviser

Whatever challenges Branson may have faced early in her career, they proved to be no real impediment to the numerous prestigious positions she has occupied within the legal profession. Of all her appointments, however, that of crown solicitor still tops her long list of career highlights.

"The appointment as crown solicitor was [very important to me], not just because the Crown Solicitor's Office was the largest law firm in South Australia at the time, but because of the very special and heavy responsibilities on those who provide legal advice to government," she says.

Such responsibilities obviously appeal to Branson and, after 14 years on the bench of the Federal Court, she once again bears the burden of providing advice to government in her role as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which she commenced in 2008, and as Australia's Human Rights Commissioner.

"I feel extremely privileged to hold these positions and am very conscious that they come with heavy responsibilities," she says. "One of the reasons I feel so privileged to hold them is because it is a fortunate person who can work somewhere where the institutional roles mirror their own personal values and beliefs."

These values and beliefs, says Branson, are largely based on principles contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "I am a person who is intellectually persuaded by the truth of the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is that recognition of the inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, is the foundation of freedom and justice and peace in the world," she says.

"Heavy responsibility comes from leading the commission and, as Australia's national human rights institution, the AHRC has an important role to play in our democracy as one of the public institutions that can hold government to account by monitoring government action and evaluating that action against internationally accepted human rights standards."

"I feel extremely privileged to hold these positions and am very conscious that they come with heavy responsibilities," Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Catherine Branson.
Bittersweet battles

For Branson, heading up the AHRC is at once sorrowful, joyful and, at times, extremely difficult. One of the primary hurdles, she says, is striking a balance between independence, especially from government, and the constant battle for funding.

"Managing independence from government is a particular challenge because we are dependent on government for funding, so we tread this difficult line in that we have an important role to monitor and, on occasions, criticise government decisions and policies, and we don't hold back from doing that," she says.

"But ultimately, if we alienate ourselves entirely from government, our independence will be of little value, because if our funding is cut dramatically there will be a real limit on what we can do. Managing that nuanced form of independence is a very significant challenge."

Branson is driven to overcome these difficulties by the positive outcomes the AHRC has been able to achieve for those in the community who are disadvantage or marginalised. "There is great joy in meeting people who, in some way or another, feel that their life is better because of the work of the AHRC," she says.

"I have spoken with a young man after he, for the first time, was able to go to a football match by himself in his wheelchair because a train line to Homebush had been made accessible to people with mobility problems. I have seen an Aboriginal elder in tears because of the validation he felt from our public criticism of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the courage he gained from it to continue what he was doing because we stood by him in criticising the Northern Territory intervention.

"These things give me enormous joy. We hear an awful lot of sad - if not desperate - stories, and mix with a lot of people who are vulnerable, who are marginalised and who are not having their rights respected. So it's wonderful to have the joy of meeting someone on whose life we have had a positive impact."

Leading the way

When it comes to leadership, Branson believes there are two distinct types. "I think of leadership in two separate ways: institutional leadership, which is my role as the leader of the AHRC, and then personal leadership," she says.

"For good institutional leadership, you have to have a clear idea in your own mind of what a truly effective organisation would look like. You also have to have a practical sense of what is necessary to move the organisation you lead to the one you clearly envisage."

At the heart of personal leadership, claims Branson, is putting into action what you say you stand for, and providing a role model for not only your employees but for the wider community.

"It involves demonstrating that you take your work seriously, that you do it with intellectual integrity, that you are guided by principle," she says. "You need to recognise that good things often are achieved incrementally, show through your own conduct respect for others, respect for hard work, respect for good process, the capacity to learn from mistakes, the capacity to defer to the opinions of others, to listen, to treat them with respect, and take on board what they say."

However, where there is a need for effective leadership, Branson is wary of factors that might impede logic and reason. "I am slightly suspicious of the modern enthusiasm for passion," she says. "I think there are places in your life to feel passion, but in the workplace, in the work that I do, I tend to think of passion as being the opposite of reason.

"I am motivated in what I do in this area, and in previous areas of my working life, by an intellectual commitment to the importance of what I am doing. I think in human rights, that is an important thing."

Aiming ever higher

On 14 October 2013, Branson will have completed her five-year term as president of the AHRC. Until that time, however, there is plenty of work to be done - even if Australia's human rights situation is, compared with many other parts of the world, quite favourable.

"We are lucky to live in Australia. For most of us, it is a great country where our rights are broadly respected. The current state of human rights in Australia is pretty good, but we can do better," says Branson.

"We need to reduce the levels of violence, harassment and bullying across our community, and improve the educational and health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and ensure they have acceptable standards of housing. We need to build on our proud history of multiculturalism and ensure that communities whose roots in Australia are shallower than those who have been with us longer become the success stories that earlier waves of migration have become. We need to reduce the economic disadvantage of women, and increase the involvement of women in our economy and in public life generally.

"We need, in short, to build a much better human rights culture in this country. Because we are a stable, relatively prosperous, democratic nation, we can aspire higher so far as human rights are concerned, and I think we should do so."

IN CONVERSATION WITH... Watch our interview with Catherine Branson as she discusses her hopes, heroes and human rights:

Legal Leaders: Candidly Catherine Branson, Australian Human Rights Commissioner
Intro image
lawyersweekly logo