Former ACON vice-president and Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby volunteer Rachel Pepper sits relaxed and easy in her Phillip St barristers chambers.
Wearing jeans and a broad smile, nothing about her demeanour betrays the fact she is in the midst of packing up the last 14 years of her professional life in preparation for her appointment as a judge on the NSW Land and Environment Court next Monday.
It is an incredible feeling to have your goals realised, Pepper told Sydney Star Observer about becoming a judge, something she has worked for her entire professional life.
Pepper has served stints as a commercial lawyer and has been involved with a number of high profile inquests -” including the recent look into the collapse of the South Pacific Highway, and the sinking of an Immigration Department patrol boat, the Malu Sara, in 2005.
She has also served as a constitutional lawyer, most recently on the landmark case in the Fijian Court of Appeal where a decision found the 2006 military coup and subsequent military rule under Frank Bainimarama to be unlawful. The decision led the country’s president to suspend the Fijian constitution.
She counts her Fijian experience, defending the deposed Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, as one of two highlights in her career to date. The other key spot goes to a case defending a gay couple’s right to apply as foster parents.
Denied even the opportunity to fill out an application form by a religious-based welfare organisation, Pepper and her team won their case in the Administrative Decisions Tribunal. The ban was overturned and the men involved received compensation for the hurt and embarrassment caused.
It was an enormously satisfying achievement, she recalled.
The case has now been appealed by the church and the Attorney-General has intervened in the matter. We’ll have to see what happens, although from my perspective of course it is a very sad discretion.
These two men just wanted to care for and love a child who perhaps wouldn’t have had that opportunity and it was terrific that they’d had the courage to take the organisation on in the first place.
Using her skills as a lawyer to speak up for the gay and lesbian community is not a new experience for Pepper. She said her time working with organisations like ACON had contributed to her sense of justice.
I’ve always had an interest in the community. That’s been born out of an interest that lies primarily in assisting people who need the assistance of lawyers in particular, and whose rights have been compromised in some way -” perhaps because they’re the most vulnerable members of the community, she said of her decision to take on her role at ACON in 2001.
Without a doubt, being involved with ACON, doing volunteer work for the Lobby, gives you a much more profound understanding of the reality of the situations of some people in the community who are disadvantaged, who are underprivileged and who are discriminated against on a daily basis.
Pepper said she now looks forward to taking on the challenges that will come with donning a judge’s robes.
Increasingly as the environment takes centre stage in people’s thinking and political discourse, it’s a court with increasing relevance, she said.
I’m very much looking forward to it, although I will miss the camaraderie of the bar. It will be good to have more time to reflect upon the law, and while it will of course be a lot of work it might allow for more of a work-life balance.