Strengthening ties with PNG: Woman to woman; lawyer to lawyer

By Alicia Patterson

Women fighting corruption, championing ethics, challenging discrimination and bullying and dealing with balancing family and work: these were central themes when a delegation of leading Victorian barristers and judges were in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in July for a two-day initiative to support and mentor women in the law in the emerging PNG legal profession. 

One of them was ABA President and Law Council of Australia Treasurer Fiona McLeod SC (Arts/LLB 1987, MPub&IntLaw 2012). Widely recognised for championing gender equality in the Australian legal profession, Ms McLeod urged PNG women lawyers to adopt a mentor through the program as a part of their strategy to grow into leadership positions. 

The "Empowering Women in the Law in PNG" program is the first of its kind in PNG, designed with a focus on building confidence in and empowering PNG women entering the profession. The program was part of a week of general advocacy training involving a total of 96 emerging PNG lawyers. 

Ms McLeod was involved in the PNG advocacy program through her role as Victorian Bar president in 2014, and her role in the development of the readers' course. The connection between the Victorian Bar and PNG has extended over more than 30 years, with many Victorian barristers travelling to PNG to provide advocacy training pro bono, or taking on PNG readers. 

Ms McLeod has a keen awareness of the benefit for emerging professions for senior lawyers from well-established justice systems to offer their support, and the importance of supporting women to participate fully in that development. 

"It is clear that by supporting emerging women leaders in any country, including in ones that are developing their social, economic and legal structures, we are actually supporting that country in its aspirations – because no country can fully develop without the voices of women being heard, and their skills and capabilities being fully included. An investment in women leaders is an investment in the future." 

She says that, not unlike Australia, PNG struggled with retaining women through to leadership positions. 

"They, like us, must find ways to harness the skills and talents of everyone, and keep them flourishing where they are most needed." 

Challenges for PNG women generally, including those in the profession, involved issues around family violence, particularly against women and children. A number of program elements dealt specifically with bullying and harassment issues, although it is widely understood that the issue is broader and deeper. 

"Issues around violence need to be tackled. If you want to address these issues, and issues around social and economic disadvantage, then women need to be included in the discussions and the solutions. For that to be possible, there needs to be strong women leaders in the profession in PNG and we will offer whatever support we can to our colleagues and neighbours," Ms McLeod says. 

They were themes mirrored in the pre-recorded address by Supreme Court of Victoria Chief Justice Marilyn Warren, shown on the opening day of the program. Chief Justice Warren frankly described her own experience of discrimination in the early part of her 40-year career. She revealed she was unsuccessful in a job application with the Crown Solicitor's Office because she was a woman – feedback openly given at the time. She described another experience while a barrister – when she received a brief only to have it withdrawn minutes later because the client would not accept a woman representative in court. 

"I found that shocking. I hope that does not happen these days. Possibly it does. Discrimination can play out in all sorts of ways and it can be insidious. However, the key to it is that if women perform in an excellent way and prove themselves not only as good as, but better, than male advocates, then inevitably we will, we must, rise to the top. 

"It will be a long battle before women dominate the profession the way men do. You as new lawyers coming through the system will receive the baton from women like me; work on and become great lawyers," she urged them. 

Victorian County Court Judge Liz Gaynor (BA 1977/ LLB 1978) was involved in a number of key sessions including 'The universal conundrum: managing practice with family and other lifestyle and cultural factors' and another on 'Discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace – what does it look like and how can we overcome it?'

The two-day program was supported by the PNG Legal Training Institute and the Australian Government, and was the first stage in matching the women with mentors from the Victorian Bar and judiciary.

Banner image: Pictured, standing: Legal Training Institute students, with barristers from the Victorian Bar 

Pictured, seated: Justice Christopher O'Neil, Australian High Commission Second Secretary Ms Tess McSpedden, Justice Les Gavara-Nanu, Remy van de Wiel QC, Judge Liz Gaynor, Acting Director LTI Mrs Pauline Mogish, and Public Solicitor Mr Jim Wala Tamate 

Credit: supplied

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 14, October 2015.