| Sydney Morning Herald
SYDNEY - Good lawyers stick to the letter of the law. Great lawyers seek justice for the disadvantaged and a fairer society.
Such as it was with Hal Wootten, who quickly tired of working for corporate clients and instead committed himself to all sectors of society, including the downtrodden.
Such was his social conscience that as a young man he belonged, if briefly, to the Communist Party.
During his busy career as a solicitor, barrister, Queen’s counsel and Supreme Court judge, he helped the fledgling Papua New Guinea state and established the Faculty of Law and Justice at the University of NSW.
He initiated the formation of the Aboriginal Legal Service, jointly presided over the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, sat on the Native Titles Tribunal and the Australian Law Reform Commission, presided over the Australian Conservation Foundation and, in his later years, took up the Palestinian cause.
When appointed Founding Dean of Law and Justice at UNSW, he said: “A law school should communicate to its students a keen concern for those on whom the law bears harshly.”
John Halden ‘Hal’ Wootten was born at Tweed Heads on 19 December 1922, son of a dairy farmer, Thomas Wootten, and Lydia (née Jarrett), on the far north coast of New South Wales.
The family was not well off. Thomas’ banana-growing venture was ruined by disease, and he went bankrupt.
Wootten’s birth had been difficult and he was saved from serious disability of one arm by an Aboriginal woman who offered to massage it.
Wootten was 11 months old when his father died and he and his mother then moved onto her parents’ farm. Four years later, the grandparents retired and the family moved to Sydney, where his mother trained as a dressmaker.
Wootten attended Willoughby Public School and Sydney Boys’ High.
In 1940, out of school, Wootten joined the NSW Public Service, went to the Crown Solicitor’s Office and enrolled at Sydney University in an arts degree part-time.
In the Crown Solicitor’s Office, he liked what he saw and proceeded to study law part-time.
In 1946 he joined a Sydney legal firm, Minter, Simpson and Co. But by then his social conscience was active and he saw society’s issues in a broader perspective.
The Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) assisted emerging nations and Wootten, after a meeting with the head, John (later Sir John) Kerr, began fieldwork on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. It was for him “a pivotal experience”.
“I felt it was very strange that having those ties with the indigenous people of New Guinea, I didn’t even know the indigenous people of my own country, and that was something nagging at the back of my mind,” he said later.
After toying with the idea of becoming a PNG patrol officer, Wootten joined the staff of the School of Pacific Administration and organised support for a regional law association, LawAsia.
His socialist ideas notwithstanding, he was appalled by the bullying attitude of the Soviet Union in 1948 when it backed the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, and he left the Communist Party.
Called to the bar in 1949, Wootten went into practice in 1951, accepting an invitation from John Kerr to share chambers. Many of the cases Wootten fought were on behalf of unionists seeking to resist Communist Party influence.
He married Dorothy Adam, whom he had met through ASOPA, and with whom he would have four children, Victoria (born 1951), Lindsay (1954), Richard (1957) and Philippa (1961).
In 1965, Wootten was briefed to oppose a push by indigenous PNG public servants to be paid at the same rate as Australians working in their public service.
Appearing opposite Bob Hawke, Wootten argued that, as painful as it was, the country could not afford the same pay scales for indigenous public servants.
Hawke said he thought PNG would not be independent for 100 years, Wootten said it would be 10.
Wootten won the case and was later thanked by the PNG administrators for helping the country remain viable.
The same year, Wootten was junior to John Kerr, then QC, appearing for the graziers in equal pay disputes. Aboriginal stockmen and station hands were claiming they should be paid the same scale as white counterparts.
Appearing for the graziers, Kerr and Wootten argued that the graziers could not pay those rates and if equal pay came in, the Aboriginal communities would be herded off their ancestral land.
They lost the case, equal pay was introduced, and what Kerr and Wootten argued came about. Many of those Aborigines became destitute fringe-dwellers.
In 1966, the year he took silk, Wootten became chairman of the New Guinea Committee of the Law Council of Australia.
In 1969, he became secretary-general of LawAsia and was invited to become Foundation Dean of Law and Justice at UNSW; Wootten, on his account, “couldn’t resist” the appointment.
“My idea about the Law School was that one of its major roles was to prepare people for the legal profession and that the legal profession had a duty to serve the whole of society,” he said.
Soon after he was appointed, a group of Aboriginals complained to Wootten about what they claimed was police harassment in Redfern.
Wootten called a meeting with a number of prominent members of that community, including Paul Coe, Gary Williams and Gary Foley, to discuss establishing an Aboriginal legal service.
He said later: “I thought on the basis of my experience in doing that, that there was a degree of sympathy and idealism in the legal profession that would make it possible to set up a permanent Aboriginal legal service, that would not just take the odd case but look after them continuously in the courts…
“I circularised the profession and asked them to put their name on a panel to do free work for Aboriginals.
“I got a tremendous response, a lot of Aboriginals, young lawyers and university staff did the footwork in maintaining or establishing relationships between Aboriginals and lawyers that they needed.”
Bob Debus, a minister in both NSW and federal parliaments, said: “Hal had the decency and understanding to gain Aboriginal confidence, the gravity to attract substantial legal professional support and the wider reputation to attract funding support.”
In consequence of a single brilliant letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, he had a phone call from the first Commonwealth minister for Aboriginal affairs, Billy Wentworth, offering help.
Funding for an office and some staff quickly followed. Wootten became the first president of the Aboriginal Legal Service that followed.
“I would say my interest was not so much in social justice as in justice, although one’s always compromised in pursuing it,” Wootten said.
“I often think that if one were really dedicated to justice, one would start on the basis that every child born into the world wherever had an equal claim on its resources.”
As Dean of Law, Wootten set up a Law program for Aboriginals, which was to turn out people like Bob Bellear, who became a judge, and magistrate Pat O’Shane.
During this period, Wootten’s marriage broke up and he divorced.
In 1973, he took up an appointment as a Puisne Judge of the NSW Supreme Court, serving in the Equity Division. In 1976, he became chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission and married lawyer Jane Mathews.
In academia, he became chancellor of the NSW Institute of Technology.
Stepping down from the bench in 1983, Wootten became chairman of the Australian Press Council.
He also became president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, pursuing an interest he had always had in nature, particularly in ornithology. He had participated in a campaign to save the Franklin River in Tasmania.
In 1986, totally dismayed by Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times, Wootten resigned from the Press Council and spoke out strongly and bitterly about the implications of such concentration of ownership.
In 1988, Wootten was appointed as one of five commissioners on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
He dedicated himself to writing a comprehensive report on each death, saying later:
“I concluded that while we had to investigate every death very carefully, to ensure there was no foul play, in many ways the best service one could do in the investigating of death was to tell not just the story of the last five minutes of the person’s life, but the whole life that had led them to be in that cell at the time they died.”
In 1991, his second marriage having ended in divorce, Wootten, now a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), married anthropologist Gillian Cowlishaw.
In 1994, he became deputy president of the Native Title Tribunal.
In the mid-1990s he developed a strong interest in the ongoing Palestinian struggle in the Middle East to such an extent that he lived in Ramallah on the West Bank for three months.
He formed strong links with two Palestinian law schools and sponsored their deans on visits to Australia and supported an initiative to establish a Palestinian Film Festival in Sydney.
In 2011, he visited Gaza to see how its law schools were faring. Intellectually engaged to the end, Hal died on 27 July.
Hal Wootten is survived by his wife, Gillian Cowlishaw, sons Lindsay and Richard, daughter Philippa and grandsons Alexander, Joe, Brody and Aiden.
A private funeral will be held tomorrow. It will be live-streamed at 11am and can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/581097826/8a7bb30320