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Legal Leaders: Australian Lawyers Alliance's Greg Barns on walking the line

Legal Leaders: Australian Lawyers Alliance's Greg Barns on walking the line

Between defending prisoners, admonishing the Government and championing the plight of the marginalised, Greg Barns has toed the line between justice and the law. He talks to Stephanie Quine…

Between defending prisoners, admonishing the Government and championing the plight of the marginalised, Greg Barns has toed the line between justice and the law. He talks to Stephanie Quine about life, politics and barracking for the underdog.

Barracking for the underdog: Australian Lawyers Alliance director Greg Barns/Photograph by Chris Gleisner
Like many before him, Greg Barns strove to become a lawyer because of a deep-seated desire to use the law as an agent for social change.

However, what he found when he actually got there was a matrix of tradition that often frustrated the road to justice and took that much-desired social change in the wrong direction.

Starting his career as a criminal defence lawyer after graduating from Monash University in 1984, Barns was a member of the Victorian Bar from 1986 to 1989 before leaving the law to pursue change in another forum: politics.

For the best part of 10 years, Barns worked in the political arena and was chief of staff and senior adviser to a number of federal and state Liberal Party leaders.

He even put himself forward as a Liberal Party candidate in 2001, but these ambitions ended abruptly the next year when he had a falling out with the party over his criticism of the Howard Government's asylum seeker policy. He was subsequently disendorsed as a candidate

“It’s something I feel strongly about because I think Australia’s approach [to asylum seekers] is extraordinarily punitive,” he says. “It’s unbecoming of a democracy to treat people in this way and it fails to recognise that there is no queue, no formal process that works, and that you’re always going to have people smugglers whilst the official processes don’t work.”

A champion for the people

In 2003, Barns returned to the legal profession, this time in Tasmania, to practice in the criminal, administrative and human rights arenas. And while his career path had again changed course, his determination to be an advocate for the cause of asylum seekers is something that has never left him.

This was no more apparent than earlier this year, when Barns openly criticised the Gillard Government’s hard-line response to violent protests at the Villawood detention centre, which Barns calls “the Villawood tragedy”. Barns vigorously defended the rioters, citing past cases where detainees’ actions had been justifiable - albeit illegal - and says that the Government’s attitude to the plight of the detainees showed “no insight and much craven stupidity”.

Championing causes which are either controversial or highly contentious is not something foreign to Barns. In 1999, he ran the republic referendum campaign with Malcolm Turnbull, and earlier this year in Tasmania he (alongside barrister Stephen Estcourt QC and top-tier firm Freehills) was able to persuade the Supreme Court of Tasmania to declare that a prisoner had been held otherwise than in accordance with his rights under the Corrections Act while in solitary confinement in Risdon Prison. The case was considered a major breakthrough in the fight to ensure some of the state’s more difficult prisoners were treated humanely.

In the last decade, Barns has also advocated for the de-criminalisation of drugs, championed the reform of Australia’s anti-terror laws, and been a voice for deported, mentally ill non-citizens convicted of criminal offences in Australia.

At present, Barns is continuing that work through his role as director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance – a vocal group of legal professionals dedicated to the protection and promotion of justice, freedom and the rights of individuals.

The write stuff

One thing that Barns has maintained over the years is a strong voice in the Australian media, often expressing his views in print, and this is something he believes goes some way to being as effective an advocate as possible.

“I think to be a good lawyer you’ve got to have a lot of interests outside the law,” says Barns, who regularly writes on political and legal issues for Crikey, the ABC’s The Drum and The Hobart Mercury.

Through his writing, Barns has established himself as a straight shooter and someone completely unafraid of airing his views. This image was cemented in 2005 when, during the Cronulla riots, he wrote in The Mercury that Australia was “backwater, racist and inward-looking country that turns its back on adventure and the opportunity to do better; a country that has rejected leaders who provide the chance for a multi-racial, multicultural and independent nation to prosper in the region where it is, Asia-Pacific”.

"Simply churning people through the courts, without giving any regard to mental illness or to their circumstances and trying to do something about those circumstances or that illness, means that we're not really according justice to that society."

He wrote that those so-called “rejected leaders” - Paul Keating, John Hewson and Malcolm Fraser – were achieving momentum to move Australia from an “Anglo-European racist conservatism towards becoming truly cosmopolitan and modern”.

“I think that Australia has become very conservative post-Keating,” he says. “There is a xenophobic underbelly that politicians scratch. I can’t think of anyone in the parliament who has Keating-like policy vision.”

Barns has also authored several books, including What's Wrong with the Liberal Party? (2003) and Selling the Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda from Whitlam to Howard (2005). Both offer an insider’s critical review on the state of the Liberal Party, how it sells itself, both publicly and behind the scenes, and how the expensive propaganda effort affects the political process.

Legal heroes

While Barns is deeply interested and entrenched in the workings of Australian politics, he says that many of his mentors came from the legal profession and have offered him strength and inspiration throughout his career.

“Michael Kirby is someone I have great respect for, as is Chris Maxwell in the Victorian Court of Appeal and Western Australia’s Chief Justice, Wayne Martin, because of his decision to modernise the courts, to abolish wigs, and allow cameras in court to ensure they are better understood by the media and the community,” he says.

“We’ve had some world leaders [when it comes to] making sure that justice is something that is not simply a bi-product of the law, but is something that accords with reality.”

This “reality” is something which is a driving force in Barn’s life and, when he’s not provoking public debate by putting pen to paper, he makes a habit of helping those who are “struggling to make their way in life” and stuck in the brutal reality that is Australia’s criminal system.

“I’ve always done work for people who you might say are in a ‘David and Goliath’ kind of situation,” he says.

“I’m always impressed by what [David Simon], who conceived and produced [American crime drama] The Wire, talks about … that in every society, 10 to 15 per cent of the population is just churning through the criminal justice system, day in, day out.”

Talking alternatives

While Barns has spent much of his career inside the courtroom wrestling with the criminal justice system, he says that alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is a “much more progressive way” to resolve grievances - whether it be therapeutic justice in mental health courts or restorative justice.

“The traditional form of justice doesn’t really give anyone great satisfaction, particularly in the criminal sphere,” he says. “These alternative forms are much more in keeping with the way we operate as human beings, and you get a much greater awareness of why people commit the crime.”

Barns looks to Canada and the UK, which he says have have taken some “very impressive and successful steps” in ADR, and says there is no reason why we have to use punitive approaches in criminal cases when people are open to using ADR methods.

“Simply churning people through the courts, without giving any regard to mental illness or to their circumstances and trying to do something about those circumstances or that illness, means that we’re not really according justice to that society,” he says.

A personal struggle

For Barns, the issue of mental illness is one to which he can very closely relate. Diagnosed with depression in Canberra almost 15 years ago, he recalls times when he could not stop crying alone and was exhausted by work.

He now takes medication for bipolar disorder and says that a life in law is difficult for sufferers of mental illness, especially when the issue is “not being taken seriously enough” by the legal profession.

“The law is not conducive for people with mental illness,” he says. “The law is very difficult because it’s all consuming, it’s adversarial, there’s not a lot of collegial support sometimes, and I think it’s often very lonely - particularly if you’re a barrister.

Barns says the recent spotlight on magistrate Brian Maloney, who had to plead for his job in front of the NSW upper house, was a bad look for how mental illness amongst lawyers is dealt with.

“I think it was a really good example of how the law is not caring enough for its own,” he says.

As for his own mental illness, Barns says medication does help, but “you need to get work-life balance right” - something he admits is not easy.

“I think you’ve got to learn to put boundaries around your work hours. I exercise most days; run and go to the gym, and cutting back on drinking - which is a favourite past time of lawyers - always helps,” he laughs.

Listening to music also helps, he says, and when he’s not working or writing he indulges his passion for classical music and jazz.

The ongoing fight

Something that uplifts Barns (even more than the piano melodies of his favourite jazz musicians Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau) is seeing the rights of individuals promoted and protected. Whether by litigation or persistent open fire on political leaders and existing systems, Barns says he will continue to champion the “Davids” of the world when it comes to upholding human rights.

Last month, he welcomed the High Court’s rejection of the 2009 NSW anti-bikie legislation as “invalid”, saying that those laws (based on Australia’s anti-terror laws) represented “the most fundamental breach of human rights this country has seen since the Second World War” for allowing ‘guilt by association’.

And while ever there are infringements of human rights occurring in Australia, you can guarantee that Barns will be there, boldly sharing his view and doing all he can to advocate for those unable to stand up for themselves.

“I think when you see someone’s life has been improved by an experience with the legal process, that is quite rewarding,” he says. “Amongst all the disappointment, when you see people whose rights have been improved, that’s really tremendous to see.”

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