If you don’t fight discrimination, it will continue unchecked
Chris Ronalds AM SC
(Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photography by David Field)
Senior Counsel Chris Ronalds has always been very involved in the development and enactment of discrimination law because of her deeply-held views about equality of opportunity and treatment by society.
Those views didn’t “just fall from the sky…they have to be created”, she reflected.
Her mother, for example, had no legal training but secured a job as a registration clerk in the days when there were few female solicitors in New South Wales, and worked her way up to eventually running a family law practice (something Chris conceded would never be allowed now!).
Chris herself also had the opportunity to work for then Attorney-General Lionel Murphy, who “made me the lawyer I am today; he opened my eyes to human rights and discrimination law”.
Now a barrister at Frederick Jordan Chambers, she is a specialist in discrimination, administrative and employment law, who has appeared in numerous coronial inquiries and was instrumental in drafting the landmark Sex Discrimination Act for the Hawke government.
Her views were strongly shaped by her experiences in the early years of her career.
“When I first came to the bar, there were very few women…I think I was number six. It was incredibly sexist,” she said.
“The judges were vile, the senior bar was vile; very unwelcoming, particularly to younger women. People came and left very quickly.”
Chris, however, didn’t leave, and has since gone on to win a number of important test cases in discrimination, including the recent Palm Island decision from the Federal Court, in which it was held that Queensland police officers had racially discriminated against the residents of Palm Island following an indigenous death in custody.
“It’s the first RDA [ Racial Discrimination Act ] class action and biggest race discrimination claim since Mabo ,” she said.
“The appeal [against that decision] was just dropped, so the initial decision will stand as an important marker for Aboriginal rights all around the country. We’re hoping it will flow through to other places as well.”
But her career has not been without its share of personal and professional challenges.
Certain instances of discrimination stick out in her mind, including an episode early on in her career, which she described as “the most shocking day in court”.
“[I had] a judge who was just so blatantly sexist that I went home in tears,” she recounted.
“I rang up a mentor, and said I can’t go back the next day, as it’s just too awful. He came over, we talked about it for a few hours, and I went back the next day, and here I still am.”
“Without that sort of support from important older mentors, I wouldn’t have survived.”
More than simply surviving, Chris has thrived, and retains passionate opinions about the importance of fighting discrimination as a legal professional.
“It takes lawyers to bring the cases and make sure people get their rights,” she argued.
“You have to be committed to the applicants or defendants, and you have to be committed to the cause.”
Discriminatory practices must have a light shone on them, she argued, otherwise they will continue unabated.
“In Palm Island, police officers have finally been called to account for their racist decisions twelve years later. The answer is not to just shrug it off,” she said.
“Australian society subscribes to international conventions and they’ve got to mean something in how the rule of law operates. And the law cannot just operate to benefit the few.”
Copyright Doraisamy, Field and Standish 2016-2017