Chartering the Way
In Conversation with Kylie Evans (BComm/LLB (Hons) 1998)
Kylie Evans’ impressive career and numerous achievements are testament to her dedication to the principles of human rights law, the importance of seizing opportunities and the power of making your own luck. Kylie is a Victorian Barrister and a senior fellow at the Melbourne Law School working in a wide range of areas across the human rights discipline. We sat down to discuss her professional journey to this point, the values that underpin her work, her experience as a barrister and the guidance she would give to law students aspiring to work in human rights.
Kylie remembers recognising her strong sense of justice from a young age. She quickly discovered that her strength lay in her words and her ability to argue in defence of her belief in fairness. As well as deliberating childhood squabbles between her siblings, Evans' grandmother retrained as a lawyer later on in her life, committing to only practicing social justice law. As a result of these formative experiences, Kylie decided she would study law at university.
However, Kylie did not initially get into law. Instead, she commenced a Bachelor of Commerce and then transferred into a combined Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws degree after her first year. Now grateful for this experience, Kylie cites this as an important life lesson.
“Although I found it really hard at the time because I really wanted to go into law straight away, I think it taught me that hard work and persistence does pay off, skills that are really important in working as a lawyer.”
It was at Melbourne Law School where Kylie’s strong sense of justice developed into a focussed interest in human rights.
This interest further flourished as Kylie went on to study her Masters at the University of Cambridge, where fortuitously, the UK Human Rights Act had recently been enacted.
“It was the first time that I really understood the politics around domestic human rights protection. We studied a lot about the enactment of the Human Rights Act and its implementation. It was just fascinating to understand how divisive this piece of legislation was, and indeed remains to this day.”
After finishing law school Kylie seized formative opportunities which would go on to shape her career. She completed two internships at the United Nations. This included working as an associate to the late Justice Hunt AO QC in the Hague hearing trials of allegations of war crimes from the conflict in the Balkan States, having just studied international law.
Following her masters, she also gained invaluable experience as a Research Fellow for the Late Judge James Crawford AC SC FBA.
“I was able to get involved in some of his cases and assist him which was a great thrill, including the legality of the wall built by Israel on the Palestinian border and go with him to the hearing to watch the case.”
Kylie’s plans to return to Melbourne coincided with the information that Victoria was considering creating its own version of the Human Rights Act.
“I think I was lucky with that timing as when we moved I was able to pick up work in the Victorian Government working on the charter having just studied the Human Rights Act. That really got me involved in the charter when it was just a policy and then a bill and then it was enacted.”
After working in the Victorian government Kylie came to the bar and is now particularly proud of her role in many of the early charter cases.
“I'm proud because I think one often underestimates the role that lawyers can have in shaping the law. The submissions that one makes matter, and the law develops around arguments. I am proud that I was able to be part of that trajectory of very early decisions on the charter and what it means and seeing that through to now nearly 20 years of having the charter in Victoria.”
Kylie’s work is considerably diverse and varied. As well as being a barrister, Kylie teaches at Melbourne Law School, is published widely on the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and delivers training to government on human rights and administrative law.
“I've always thought that being able to practice law and write and teach it is a fantastic combination. I think there are benefits to aspects of your practice and teaching by doing both.”
Like many people who pursue a career in human rights, Kylie’s work is fundamental to who she is.
“My work in the human rights space is very intrinsic to who I am. I think the values that I hold dearly, which are often principles that inform human rights, are always there.”
“It is a real privilege to be able to have a career in a subject that I really like and feel passionate about. It is great that even in a country like Australia where we are a long way away from the international human rights organisations like the United Nations, we can still make a career in human rights.”
Speaking to Kylie, her strong-held belief in the protection of individual rights and upholding the principle of equality before the law is unmistakable, inspiring and a benchmark to aspiring lawyers.
“It's not the big cases that bring me the most pride. It's the little cases in which I've acted for an individual who didn't have the ability to advocate for themselves, and there was a need for them to advocate and I was able to obtain a small victory for them that I'm really proud of. They have often involved this idea of standing between the individual and the state and saying something is not right here.”
“It is important as a barrister to remember that it is a great privilege to be entrusted with the role of speaking for someone in that scenario, because we're being asked to use our tools to speak on their behalf when they can't. I have a very firm value and belief in the principle that all people are equal before the law. We are all human beings.”
Kylie discussed with us the unique features of working as a barrister in this discipline.
“It is important to have some sense of understanding of human behaviour. To be a barrister when you're dealing with these kinds of cases you need to understand where your client is coming from. Sometimes, it is saying to them, no, we can't do that.”
Ultimately, Kylie feels that the biggest misconception of the law is that it can be dull. In reality law, and in particular human rights law, is inextricably linked to the complexities of human nature.
Kylie notes too, the fluidity of the discipline and the role of the lawyer in an increasingly polarised world.
“When one has a public interest matter, I think there's a really interesting question about whose role it should be to enact change in the law. I am talking about big issues like assisted dying laws or housing as a human right. Are these issues best left to an elected parliament to deal with, or do we think that the courts should, through the mechanism of party against party litigation, engage in that reform process when Parliament isn't doing it? I think that's a really interesting thing to reflect on and one only needs to look to the South African experience to look at how their constitutional court has dealt with particular issues through the court when Parliament hasn't acted and to look at how have those decisions been received.”
So, finally, what was Kylie’s advice to aspiring law students hoping to work in this practice area?
“If you have opportunities come your way, go for them. Try not to overanalyse it or put-up hurdles.”
“Seek out experiences that interest you, seek out mentors, people that you're interested in, and take a long-term view. To the extent that I have had any success, my overnight success has taken about 23 years. It doesn't happen straight away. We need people to be human rights lawyers, but it doesn't happen overnight. It takes work and it takes time. Be persistent but follow things that are interesting to you because they come a lot easier too. Say yes to opportunities and experiences.”
Kylie has certainly inspired us to continue to seize opportunities, pursue careers which align with our personal values and to have the self-confidence to do so. We are sure that she will continue to inspire the next generation of lawyers through her work.
Prepared by: Susannah Wells and Karun Dhaliwal
JD Students MLS