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Senior College’s Law and Order Incursion

It’s not every day that our Year 11 and Year 12 Legal Studies students get to meet three titans of the Law, but last week they met the former Director of Public Prosecutions, a Supreme Court Judge and a leading barrister.

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It was with great excitement that our HSC Legal Studies students met with three doyens of the Law last week. Professor Nicholas Cowdery AO, QC was the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions from 1994 to 2011 and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Sydney Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of Sydney and a Visiting Professorial Fellow in the Faculties of Law in the Universities of NSW and Wollongong. The Hon Justice Geoffrey Bellew has been a Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW since 2012, where he sits in the Common Law Division, as well as in the Court of Criminal Appeal. Mr Emmanuel Kerkyasharian is a barrister with Forbes Chambers and appears in all levels of the Criminal Justice System, running trials in the District Court, Summary Hearings in the Local Court in NSW, as well as appearing in lengthy complex trials in the Supreme Court. He is currently a member of the Legal Aid Criminal Appellate and Complex Criminal Law Specialist Barrister Panels.

Despite their high profiles, all three were generous with their time, impressing with their incisiveness and learning, and patiently responding to students’ questions – of which there were many. For those toying with the idea of making law their career, it was a fantastic eye-opener into the many different challenges and opportunities available to them.

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Professor Nicholas Cowdery was NSW’s longest-serving Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), where he oversaw the prosecution of numerous high-profile cases during that time, including Ivan Milat, Gordon Wood and Keli Lane. During that time, he earnt a formidable reputation as a controversial and unconventional fighter for justice, willing to speak out against political interference and pressure from the media.

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Professor Cowdery spoke to the students about his early days as a young lawyer, in particular, his travels in Papua New Guinea where he worked as a public defender. He described his role as DPP as “the best job in criminal justice”, which enabled him to work across the whole spectrum of the criminal justice system. He spoke about the concept of ‘justice’ and the areas where this is difficult, such as sexual assault cases and indigenous incarceration rates. He also spoke about the influence of the media on our legal system. While the DPP deals with thousands of cases each week, only a very small percentage of them make it into the media, where they inevitably attract the attention of politicians. As Professor Cowdery said, when working at the intersection between media and politics, is it important to pay attention to what is being said, but not be influenced by it. He spoke about the challenges for the law in dealing with drug-related crimes and ignited debate about the controversial issue of the legalisation of drugs. Should certain drug crimes be treated as a health (rather than a criminal) issue, as they are in Portugal? The girls reflected on the complexity of law reform issues and the balancing of rights of various stakeholders. Professor Cowdery recommended that students read his books, Getting Justice Wrong: myths, media and crime, and Frank and Fearless if they wanted to gain a more detailed view of these issues.

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The Hon Justice John Bellew spoke about his career development and highlighted that when he was a school student, he didn’t have any contacts in the Law. He also emphasised to the students that there are many different pathways into law, so not to be too disappointed if they didn’t get the ATAR to get into their chosen course first time around. His Honour explained that he has moved around during his career, resigning from a successful career with the DPP to work at small law firm in Kogarah – much to his father’s consternation at the time. As a Barrister, he has appeared for major sporting identities in disciplinary tribunals, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. In 2015 he was appointed the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the National Rugby League. He has also presided over high-profile cases such as the sentencing of Ron Medich for the murder of Michael McGurk, and Roger Rogerson and Glen McNamara for the murder of Jamie Gao. His Honour was appointed as a Judge of the Supreme Court on 31 January 2012. He spoke passionately about some of the more difficult situations he has faced during his career, particularly when his personal reputation came under attack. He also spoke about what happens when a judgement is overturned on appeal, the role of juries, the role of DNA evidence in trials, the significance of the Pell appeal, and his view on majority verdicts. As he said, it’s a privilege to serve as a judge and he devotes extremely long hours to each case before imposing a sentence because the legitimacy of the criminal justice system rests on perceptions of fairness, to victims, the public, as well as the accused. Judges must be impartial decision makers, setting aside political beliefs and personal values and while they might feel tremendous sympathy for the individual circumstances and vulnerabilities of the accused, it’s important not to let this cloud your judgement.

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Finally, Barrister, Mr Emmanuel Kerkyasharian spoke to the Year 12 students about his career, from his years as a Senior Solicitor with the Western Aboriginal Legal Service, to appearing in the Local, District and Supreme courts as a Solicitor, on complex cases including homicides. He chatted about The Wigs, a unique monthly podcast where he and fellow barristers delve into some of the contemporary legal issues in and out of the court room. He spoke about the NSW Police’s attempt to ban the Black Lives Matter protest in Sydney and his role in representing the protest organiser in the 24 hours leading up to the event, which resulted in him securing a last-minute appeal ruling that allowed a peaceful protest to go ahead. He also spoke about issues such as the NSW Coercive Control Bill, the age of criminal responsibility, and his views on police powers, including the increase in strip searches, which have increased significantly in the last decade.
Mia in Year 12 said, "I thoroughly enjoyed the day yesterday, hearing from the former DPP, a Supreme Court Judge and a defence Barrister. All the individuals were incredibly inspiring and honest with the insights they provided in regard to both the operation of our legal system and what it's like entering a career of law. We were so lucky to hear from these prominent individuals."

Meredith In Year 12 said, “I enjoyed seeing the many different career paths a person studying law could take and found it really interesting to hear how the speakers coped in their careers.
Hearing the perspectives of a judge, prosecutor and defence barrister on the cases we study in class (majority verdicts, double jeopardy etc.), enriched my own thoughts around these topics, rather than just memorising quotes or statistics.”

A huge thank you to our Legal Studies Department for all their hard work in organising the incursion. It was a huge privilege for our students to have access to such amazing legal expertise and wisdom.