Australian Lawyers Who Changed the World

November 26, 2019


Legal Interest


Ella Donald

When it comes to lawyers, their influence can go far beyond the individual client.

In some cases, the work of Australia’s most accomplished professionals can change legislation, social commentary, and public perceptions of issues.

Here’s three landmark laws or inquiries that made change, and the tireless work by legislators that lead to them. 

Elizabeth Andreas Evatt, AC

Family Law Act 1975

Elizabeth Andreas Evatt
Elizabeth Andreas Evatt. Source: Elizabeth Evatt

Before the mid-1970s, a divorce was difficult to obtain, especially for a woman.

In order to dissolve a marriage, a spouse had to prove that the other was at ‘fault’, due to factors such as adultery, abuse, or desertion.

This system required evidence to be given in court, leading to a drawn out - and at times deliberately false and deceptive - process, with bias that erred against the spouse who had done wrong.

That started to change in 1974, when Elizabeth Andreas Evatt AC, the first woman awarded the University of Sydney’s Medal for Law, headed up the Royal Commission on Human Relationships.

Joined by journalist Anne Deveson and Felix Arnott, the then-Anglican archbishop of Brisbane, the royal commission sought to gather insights into the private lives of Australians - of all ages, genders, and sexualities - to better inform public and social policy.

Ultimately, the commission ended in 1977, the deadline brought forward after Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s dismissal, but an indelible mark was already made - as a result of the submissions, responses, and testimonies, the Family Law Act 1975 was introduced, ending the need to prove ‘fault’ in divorce proceedings.

“(This model is) based on equality, no fault and conciliation,” Evatt said in a 2005 speech

Margaret Cunneen SC

NSW Special Commission of Inquiry - Police Investigation of Certain Child Sexual Abuse Allegations in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle​

Margaret Cunneen SC
Margaret Cunneen. Source: The Australian

Before and after the high-profile Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, there has been a number of inquiries into and cases involving similar matters from all around Australia.

One of the most notable in recent years was lead by Margaret Cunneen SC, a noted crusader against sexual abuse in New South Wales.

Investigating police handling of child sexual abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle from 2012 to 2014, Cunneen’s commission found sufficient evidence to charge a senior Church official for protecting former priest Father James Patrick Fletcher, who died in custody in 2006.

Like many others before and after it, it was a significant finding on the path to justice.

"There have been less than a handful of prosecutions for concealing matters relating to clergy, so we're not talking about the perpetrators here, we are talking about people who might have had knowledge of perpetrators," Joanne McCarthy, a journalist credited with first exposing the protection of paedophile priests in the region, told the ABC.

"It is also significant, I think in this region, because we have been writing about really serious child sex abuse involving Catholic clergy since 1995 and in so many of these cases, in fact virtually all of them that I am aware of, there has been evidence of Church knowledge of those perpetrators."

Lloyd Clive McDermott (Mullenjaiwakka)

Land and Environment Court

Lloyd Clive McDermott (Mullenjaiwakka)
Lloyd Clive McDermott. Source: World Rugby Museum

Following the landmark Mabo case in 1992, the concept of native title - that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have rights and interests to land as laid out in their traditional law - was recognised in Australian law, leading to a number of claims from Indigenous Australians.

Following the passing of the Native Title Act 1993, traditional owners are - through a lengthy legal process involving the Federal Court of Australia - able to seek official claim, protection, and legislation of their land.

One of many judges presiding over these claims in this early period was Mullenjaiwakka, Australia’s first Indigenous barrister.

As a part-time Commissioner of the  Land & Environment Court, his position within the community proved invaluable when clarifying early legislation and processing claims in the still-new area of law.

"Lloyd was the dispenser of great wisdom to all of his colleagues in Chambers. He also sat as an acting Judge of the District Court and as a part-time Commissioner of the Land & Environment Court, presiding over native title claims when such claims were in their infancy,” longtime friend Ian Lloyd told NITV in 2019.

According to Lloyd, Mullenjaiwakka was so admired that he was permitted to introduce himself during proceedings by his traditional name - Mullenjaiwakka Lloyd McDermott. “(It was) unusual anywhere in the world at that time,” Lloyd said.

Ella Donald

Ella is a Brisbane based writer for Smith's Lawyers who has written for many noteworthy publications including Vanity Fair, CNN, GQ Middle East, The Guardian, Fairfax, and The Saturday Paper. She covers topics such as entertainment and arts, sport, fashion, food, social and cultural issues, health and beauty, technology, law and travel. She also teaches at the University of Queensland in the School of Communication and Arts.