In Conversation with Paul Richards

I had the pleasure of meeting Paul in 2019 when I was asked to step in as chair for his presentation at the Law Society during Law Week. Having no idea who he was and equally unfamiliar with his work, I did what most people do – I Google’d him!

Imagine my surprise when the first search result for ‘Paul Richards Lawyer’ came up with ‘Brisbane Writers Festival’, followed by ‘Adventures with Agitators: In conversation with author and lawyer Paul Richards.’

Agitators, hey?

I was intrigued. When I asked Paul why he wrote the book, his answer was simple:

  1. He wanted to ensure the stories of the struggles of the elders from the Indigenous communities were memorialised for the younger generations
  2. He wanted non-Indigenous people to learn, understand and appreciate the reality of the struggles faced by the Indigenous communities.

…and just like that, my intrigue grew beyond Paul and his writing; I wanted to know more about his life’s work.

I’ll let Paul share the rest… 

SD: Hi Paul, a pleasure to speak with you again! Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your journey in law so far.

PR: I retired in 2015. My career began in 1964 as an articled law clerk with a Brisbane suburban firm of solicitors. At that time, the process involved 5 years of articles (like an apprenticeship) while studying law subjects at the University of QLD by night. But the course did not eventuate in a degree, as some of the subjects were deemed unnecessary by the Solicitors Board (such as Roman law and Jurisprudence).

I was called up for national service to go to Vietnam which stalled my studies while I engaged in amateur theatre largely doing antiwar performances. In that time, I developed a personal relationship with Oodgeroo Noonuccal and her family.

They then introduced me to Brisbane Tribal Council (BTC) for whom I conducted theatre workshops with their younger members. I then became aware of the appalling injustices being done to indigenous people in QLD. Working with BTC (and other groups such as the Australian Black Panther Party) I became involved in the formation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Legal Service (ATSILS) in 1972.

SD: What brought you to the legal profession?

PR: Once ATSILS began, I was urged by the indigenous members to complete my law studies so that I could be useful to them. Under the rules of the time, I only had to complete a couple of subjects and obtain the certificate of my master, stating I was a fit and proper person, so I could then be admitted as a solicitor in April 1973.

For many years I worked mainly in civil and criminal litigation but the last 10 years were spent largely in native title work helping indigenous people get back some rights over their land. Upon reflection of my career, I was encouraged to write a book about Indigenous battles in the justice system in QLD. The book, ‘Adventures with Agitators’ was published in February 2019. Now in my retirement, I assist the community through involvement in organisations such as Reconciliation QLD.

Although I am no longer practising law, I receive numerous calls from Indigenous people seeking free general advice about a variety of matters some of which I can then refer on to practising lawyers. I have thoroughly enjoyed and taken great pride in my career in striving to bring justice to Indigenous people in Queensland.

Ironically, I would not have had that opportunity if it was not for the cruel oppression by the government of Joh Bjelke-Peterson. That oppression ironically resulted in the judicial determination of the existence of native title.

SD: What is the biggest change* you’ve seen (in the profession) during your time?

PR: The biggest change I have seen is the extraordinary progress Indigenous people have made with the assistance of some members of the legal profession; in particular the admission of so many into the profession. One of my articled law clerks was Mr Tony McAvoy, who became the first Indigenous QC in the history of Australia.

I was also involved in the training and employment of the first Indigenous solicitor in the history of Queensland – Jacqueline Payne – who also became Queensland’s first Indigenous Magistrate. Another is Mr Kevin Smith who is the CEO for Queensland South Native Title Services  I have maintained close friendships with the trainees over the years (probably about a dozen).

Another change, of which I was a part, was the beginning of industry superannuation, which is now a fertile field for litigation. In about 1984 I was the solicitor for the construction unions when they made an agreement with employers to set up a superannuation scheme for the retirement of construction workers. The Queensland government passed legislation designed to frustrate this and so I and the solicitor for the employers became independent directors of a state-based fund to comply with the legislation.

In my view, the state legislation breached section 92 of the constitution by interfering with free trade between the states. However, the unions took a practical view of the interests of the workers by avoiding judicial conflict. So, I got to serve as I director for over 30 years and, thanks to Joh I received more money than I would have from a single High Court case. The Federal legislation making it compulsory did not begin until 1993.

There have of course been many other changes. One change to the detriment is the advertising by the profession. I cringe when I see the late-night advertising by lawyers looking for clients who might make claims on their disablement insurance through their superannuation funds. They falsely imply that there is a need for a solicitor at first instance. The fact is that industry funds are trustees and have a fiduciary duty to their members. For that reason, the funds have staff, whose duty is to assist the member in the application. If the insurer declines the claim, the trustees then attempt to have the insurer change their decision. It is only when the insurer has rejected the representation of the trustee and maintained the decline, that there is a cause of action for which one would obtain a solicitor.

In my early years in the profession, no form of advertising or public statement in the media was permitted as it was described as ‘touting’, being an unfair advantage in a profession that relied upon word-of-mouth recommendation.

SD: What is the change you’d like to see? 

PR: The change I would like to see, is a requirement that the advertising with respect to claims for disability insurance through industry super funds be coupled with a clear statement that a solicitor is not needed until a cause of action has commenced, after confirmation by the trustee that the claim is rejected.

In native title proceedings, one of the fundamental needs in such a claim is the unity of the group making an application. In some cases, some solicitors either deliberately or inadvertently foster dissension which adds to the costs but frustrates a successful conclusion. There needs to be more significant attention to mediation, but with special considerations to the cultural issues.

SD: What do you think we can do, as a profession, to help realise that 5-10 year vision?

I think the continuing legal education programmes would deal with the issues I’ve noted. Although it’s been nearly 20 years since I closed down my practise, I believe the system of articles of clerkship is an extremely valuable part of the education of young lawyers. My understanding is that greater emphasis is now placed on academic education.

PR: What would be your advice to someone who is just joining the profession?

To someone just joining the profession, I would say that, as their career progresses, new developments will make new demands. By way of example, I would refer to the two aspects of my career, namely the advent of aboriginal legal aid and industry super. I would also point out that in both those areas I contributed in the beginning on a voluntary basis at a time when my contemporaries were suggesting I was wasting my time and would not make any money out of either of them.

I would, of course, suggest that anyone entering the profession read my book, ‘Adventures with Agitators’ as an example of how one’s professional career can be determined by the circumstances which might evolve unpredictably. But I would add the practise of law can enable one to be a valuable part of our society and lead to many wonderful friendships.

One story in the book relates to the Rugby League grand final in the South Burnett region in about 1980. The game was between Kingaroy (Premier Joh’s hometown) and Cherbourg (the small Indigenous town just down the road). Two days before the grand final, the Magistrate and the police conspired to pervert the course of justice in order to lock up the star centre from Cherbourg. Clearly, they did this to try to help the big city team beat the small town team. I was able to ensure his release so he could play the game.

To find out how I did it and the result of the game … you will have to read the book!

Paul’s journey shows us that it doesn’t matter how long, or how long ago you were in the ‘game,’ because some things don’t change: the opportunity to develop friendships, relationships and the value of adaptability to the unpredictability of life. Moreover, our skills as a lawyer and the opportunity to advocate extends beyond the client. We are, should choose to be, advocates for communities, colleagues and causes.

If you’re interested in Paul’s work, you can find his book at ‘Avid Reader’ (West End), State Library, ‘Books@Stones’ (Stones Corner), State Museum, ‘RiverBend Bookstore’ (Bulimba) or online at www.themoshshop.com.au .

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One Response

  1. Paul. Thank you for your contribution to the law, the community generally and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in particular, all over many years. I particularly welcome your observation that our younger colleagues should allow their careers to be informed by the happenstance of each working day as much as by their aspirations. All the best. DMM

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