Still a community advocate
Former Supreme Court judge and New South Wales Attorney-General Jeff Shaw last week spoke about his fight for the legal rights of gay and lesbian couples.
Talking from Darlinghurst law firm The People’s Solicitors, of which he is now a director, Shaw looked every bit the former powerbroker.
His rise from the Opposition benches as shadow minister for Industrial Relations and Local Government began in 1995, when he was chosen by then NSW Premier Bob Carr to be his Attorney-General.
During this time, Shaw guided a number of law reforms that have expanded the rights of same-sex couples.
In 1999 Shaw spearheaded the Property (Relationships) Legislation Amendment Act, which amended the De Facto Relationships Act of 1984.
It essentially allowed same-sex de facto couples to be included in the government’s definition of “domestic relationships”.
This led to the extension of the rights of gay and lesbian couples when it came to inheritance, compensation, stamp duty and decision-making after death.
“The gay and lesbian lobby group put forward a very cogent argument to me at that time,” Shaw said.
“Why should the laws, in terms of property distribution when relationships break up, be any different for gay and lesbian couples?
“And they didn’t have much difficulty persuading me about that.”
The difficulties, however, in pushing the legislation through NSW Parliament were incredible, Shaw added.
“There was vehement opposition from some members of the cross benches, including the ‘right to lifers’ as they were called in those days,” he said.
“So it was a delicate political exercise, but one that I think was very worthwhile.”
A few years earlier, in 1996, Shaw amended the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 to include discrimination on transgender grounds and amended the Births Deaths and Marriages Act 1995 to provide legal recognition of post-operative transgender persons.
Transgender status was a question of gender identity, Shaw said in Parliament in 1996, and not sexual preference.
“There is strong evidence to show that transgender persons are subject to high levels of discrimination in their daily lives, including discrimination in employment and in their access to services,” he said.
“The Government believes that anti-discrimination legislation would go a long way to help end the discrimination against this section of the community.”
Shaw stood down as Attorney-General in 2000, and was sworn in as a judge on the Supreme Court in 2003. He resigned in 2004, amid a drink driving controversy – before embarking on a new career as a legal professional for the “battlers”.
Appearing at the bar is “in a sense” an embarrassment, Shaw said.
“People are quoting speeches that I made in Parliament,” he said. “All my words come back to me with shades of mediocrity.”
But the extravagances of his Supreme Court days have been replaced with a ramshackle office near Oxford Street where, along with Kingsley Liu and Janice Gounder, Shaw services the local community.
“So far I have been very happy dealing with all kinds of people,” he said, “cab drivers, transgender people, immigrants, refugees, everyday people who get into trouble sometimes.”
The team at The People’s Solicitors focus on criminal, civil administrative, employment and immigration law – their socially minded approach to legal services winning them brownie points with locals.
There is an area of pro bono work, Shaw said, and an area of “no win, no pay” work.
“There is also an area where, if people can afford to pay something, we will ask them to pay a modest fee,” he said.
“It is an idealistic project – we are essentially saying there are alternatives to the big end of town.
“And it’s satisfying, especially when we can win. And we have a pretty high win rate.”