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Who is this year’s President’s Award recipient?

The Law Council recently presented the 2020 President’s Award to human rights advocate, Stephen Keim SC.

The Law Council had the opportunity to interview Stephen and ask how he felt about winning the President’s Award; what has been his career highlights so far; and what are some of the key legal issues and challenges the legal profession needs to focus on?
 

What does it mean to you to be awarded the 2020 Law Council President’s Award?

People always say that receiving an important award like this is humbling. This is a little counter-intuitive because being recognised for something we are perceived to have done should make us proud. And I am proud to have had my work recognised by an institution whose contribution to Australian society is as great as that of the Law Council.

But humbling is also correct. When I look through the list of those who have received this award, in past years, people whose great qualities I know well, the overwhelming feeling is one of unworthiness to be in the same list as them. People on the list include Julian McMahon, Justice Mortimer, Justice Lasry, Phil Boulton, Colin McDonald and Raelene Webb: to be on that list is both daunting and a source of great pleasure.

I am also a great admirer of the president, Pauline Wright. So to be the recipient of Ms Wright’s president’s award is, in itself, a great feeling.
 

Over the course of your career so far, what are some of the highlights you have been proudest of?

In many ways, the greatest achievement for any lawyer is just turning up, each day, and doing one’s very best with whatever tasks present themselves. There are important cases, but, for your client, their case is the most important case in the world. So trying to do my best, every working day, is probably the thing of which I am proudest.

Having said that, some pieces of work gets remembered more than others. I ran a lot of difficult cases for conservation group over the years. The Nathan Dam case was important because it affected, in a positive way, the interpretation of the EPBC Act, the Commonwealth environmental legislation providing for impact assessment of projects.

I also enjoyed serving as a member of an anti-discrimination tribunal. Deciding cases about people’s complaints of race and sex and disability discrimination allowed me to contribute to the workings of the legal system in a way that is different to the work of an advocate.

I have enjoyed contributing to law reform and justice issues. This started with the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties and various Community Legal Centres; involved work on Queensland Law Society committees when I was still a solicitor; and includes work on committees of the Queensland Bar Association. Of course, my work with the Human Rights Committee of the Law Council has been very satisfying, especially, working with incredibly talented members of the profession and the extremely hard working and professional staff of the Law Council.

My most famous case remains my working with my great friend, Dr Mohamed Haneef. That was a case where a suspect, who was excoriated every day in the most shameful way by the media, became a cause celebre and symbol of government oppression by the same media. Best of all, Dr Haneef turned out to be completely innocent. It was great to play a small role in that transition, assisted, of course, by the very brave journalist, Hedley Thomas.
 

From your perspective, what are some of the key legal issues and challenges the legal profession needs to focus on?

The greatest challenge for our societies is accelerating inequality. Since 1980, in Australia and similar countries, the gap between the very rich and the huge numbers of people at the poorer end of the spectrum has gone from lessening to getting larger at a great rate. For the law, this means that access to justice is an overwhelming issue with which we are continually struggling.

The inequality of opportunity that flows from inequality of wealth is exacerbated by structural issues in the society with policies directing resources in a way that adds to the inequality. Rich families get new swimming pools for their private schools; poor families get Robodebt. Two hundred years of colonialism is still impacting Indigenous families and structural racism still results in deaths in custody and adds to Indigenous incarceration. People with disabilities are failed on a daily basis by aspects of the prison system.

In some ways, it is unfair to expect lawyers and the legal system to cure all of society’s ills. But we have to do our part. We need to make sure that we do not add to the problem. We have to find solutions when we can. And we have to use the knowledge we gain from our work and bear witness to the dimensions of the problems.
 

Is there anything you aspire to do in 2021 and beyond?

In 2021, I look forward to more of the same. I have had the great privilege of doing interesting work, every day. I look forward, not only to doing the same things I have always done, but also to whatever new challenges and surprises life throws up.
 

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