Interview with Debbie Mortimer

By André Dao in conversation with Debbie Mortimer | 03 Jul 12
Debbie Mortimer SC is a Melbourne barrister whose areas of practice include matters relating to civil liberties, constitutional law, discrimination law, equal opportunity, human rights, and freedom of information. Last year, she led the legal team that won the landmark “Malaysia Solution” case. We caught her after an event hosted by Peace Brigades International about the terrible conditions human rights lawyers overseas face including abductions and death threats. We spoke to Ms Mortimer about international solidarity and being a human rights lawyer.

Right Now: My first question for you is why the issues that we’ve spoken about tonight are perhaps underreported in Australia, or people, particularly in the legal community, don’t talk about a lot – that there are lawyers overseas who face these kinds of difficulties in doing their work.

[Debbie Mortimer] I think the legal profession can be very insular, and people are working hard on immediate problems that are right in front of their noses; clients in various degrees of strife, and so you tend to focus on what’s directly in front of you and the problems that you think are confronting – your clients and your profession and your country because that’s your daily experience and I think perhaps a time issue as well – lawyers are not as good as they should be about looking at a broader international picture. I don’t think it’s something that we’re trained very well to do – we’re trained to focus on our own domestic legal system, and particularly perhaps in Australia, where Australian courts are incredibly reluctant to incorporate international law and look at the jurisprudence of other countries. We’re not encouraged to lift our eyes outside our own country that often, I don’t think.

You mentioned tonight that the rule of law is something that perhaps we do assume is universal, or that we take for granted. Why do you think that is?

Australia and a lot of the Western democratic nations have been blessed in their recent past – the last few hundred years with democratic institutions that haven’t really been placed under the kinds of threats that we’ve been hearing about tonight. I think we take a lot for granted. And the things we talk about in terms of rule of law issues are in a comparative sense very minor compared to what we’ve been hearing about going on in Columbia.

Given that difference between what we experience here and what’s being experienced over overseas, what do you think we as Australians can do in terms of solidarity? How do we first of all find out about what’s going on overseas and secondly, how do we show our support?

Well I think a couple of things. First I think it is important to spend some time gathering some information so that you personally become a lot more aware about some of the details and of the circumstances in countries like Columbia. And then it’s a matter of talking to people and encouraging other people – people we know, people in our networks – to also become aware of what’s occurring. The more that kind of spreading through people’s networks of information occurs, then the more likely it is to reach people who have either some kind of political influence and legal influence and funding influence. At the end of the day you need to reach people who have the resources, and the power, to make a difference. And that can only happen by a lot of people using the networks that they have to encourage others to look outside Australia at the problems that are faced by the legal profession in countries like this.

Finally, to finish on a positive note, what do you think has been the most satisfying moment for you in terms of using the law to affect justice or human rights?

There are two categories of cases I put in for consideration. The first is cases where you secure an outcome for individuals that has a really dramatic effect on their lives, and a lot of the refugee cases are like that – people that are otherwise facing removal from this country and you can turn their circumstances around and they end up with a visa and then they end with citizenship and bring their families here. You have a very personal effect on the lives of a group of people. And they’re very satisfying cases.

But then there’s another kind of case where you are fighting more for the establishment of a principle or the changing of a systemic issue. And they’re also incredibly satisfying because then you see the effects you might have on a large group of people. And although they’re not as immediate, perhaps you don’t know the individuals as personally as you do when there’s just one client involved, you see the ripples of the outcome of the case and the Malaysian Solution case is a very good example of that – the hundreds of people that are now getting protection in Australia and able to restart their lives here, even though perhaps as the lawyer I don’t know those people as personally as I do some of my other clients.