WITH the possibility of a harmful plebiscite debate on the horizon, the dedicated team at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in Melbourne are prepared to look at options to assist anyone in our community who is affected, including pro bono work.
Maurice Blackburn is Australia’s leading social justice law firm, with a history and proud reputation of fighting for the protection of the vulnerable and a focus on equality for all under the law.
“Ideally, the best way to resolve this would be a free vote in the Parliament. If that doesn’t happen, then we do have genuine concerns about the divisiveness of a plebiscite and we will certainly be looking at options to offer pro bono support for anyone who may be affected by this, who feels they’re the victim of vilification.”
While Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory all have laws preventing anti-discrimination and vilification, the other states and territory do not.
“The concern is we’re having a big national debate over civil rights issues for gay and lesbian people and that sort of debate will provide a degree of cover for people who would normally feel circumspect about spreading hate,” Mr Varghese said.
“These things go on on all sorts of platforms.”
The firm is currently representing Blaise Harris, a teacher who was discriminated against by the NSW Department of Education because of her gender identity.
Associate lawyer Alana Heffernan was shocked when she heard about the case and wanted to take the matter on.
“This case involves pretty serious discrimination,” Ms Heffernan told the Star Observer.
“Blaise is a qualified teacher who had performed work for the Department of Education across the state system for quite some time prior to transitioning.
After starting the process of transitioning in 2014, Blaise was offered casual work at Cessnock High School – a school she had previously taught at.
When she notified them that she was transitioning, the school decided not to continue the offer of employment and has not offered employment since.
Blaise raised the issue with the area manager who told her “to think of the children”.
“That was obviously very offensive to Blaise and the fact that it still happens in a modern society made me really want to take this matter on,” Ms Heffernan said.
The matter is now in the hands of the Anti-Discrimination board after the Department of Education refused to respond to the complaint.
“The lack of support Blaise received from the area manager in relation to Cessnock High School’s behaviour caused her pretty significant humiliation and distress,” Ms Heffernan added.
“She actually ceased transitioning for a period because of feelings of shame and worthlessness. Even though there is also financial aspects this sort of behaviour causes, it’s those non financial aspects that really have long term damaging effects.”
Blaise continues to work at other schools, all of which have been supportive of her transition.
“They consider her a positive role model for students who are gender diverse, have questions about gender diversity and even sexual diversity,” Ms Heffernan said.
Ms Heffernan described her social justice work at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers as “very rewarding”.
“They obviously align with my social justice values and it’s rewarding to be part of a firm that sees cases like Blaise’s and allows you to assist,” she said.
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers try to focus their pro bono work on areas of public interest that will affect more than just one person, hoping to create public debate or the law itself by setting precedents.
“It’s those sort of things we focus on, like with the plebiscite we are worried about the people who won’t be able to afford lawyers,” Mr Varghese said.
Although the team at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers are worried about the plebiscite, Mr Varghese said he remains hopeful that it will just be a vote in parliament.
“I think everyone, the large majority of Australians, think this is a change that’s overdue,” he said.
“With every other civil rights progress Australia has made, it never went to a plebiscite. We didn’t have a plebiscite on the racial or sex discrimination acts so I don’t understand why we need one to remove this sort of discrimination against people in same-sex relationships.
“I don’t see what makes this a special issue.”
Ms Heffernan said the plebiscite is a serious concern for the lawyers at Maurice Blackburn.
“It’s concerning that we have a Prime Minister who assumes marriage equality will become a matter of law but is requiring or even allowing a public debate, which will only fuel fear and anxiety, and promote vilification.”
Marriage equality is a great example of the type of social justice issue that Maurice Blackburn pursues for all Australians under the law. They believe equality is a basic human right that should be a given in a fair and just society. Their “Your right is my right” campaign reminds us that social justice is a collective right that affects every one of us and why it is so important to protect. If the right to be equal is compromised for one person, then we risk everyone’s rights, too.
Visit www.mauriceblackburn.com.au/about to learn more about the story behind the campaign.