21 September 2023
In this episode, Justice Dina Yehia reflects on her life and times working in Australia’s criminal justice system and being an advocate for First Nations justice. In conversation with Ashurst First Nations Lead Trent Wallace, Justice Yehia explains how a rebellious, non-English-speaking girl from Egypt ended up pursuing criminal and social justice in remote Australia.
The conversation covers her early career as a junior solicitor working in remote Australia, the late night bus journeys to Broken Hill, and defending Aboriginal people in court. “I don’t have any recollection of being apprehensive or scared or afraid of what might come,” she recalls. “I always got on that bus with a sense of excitement… We had some extraordinary Aboriginal people who filled positions at the Western Aboriginal Legal Service and they expected 100% of us, and rightly so.”
As well as talking about self-doubt, camaraderie and persistence, Justice Yehia and Trent share a commitment to assisting mob and tackling gaps in justice – and both admit to having a bit of a rebellious streak!
Note: The Hon. Justice Dina Yehia was appointed as a Supreme Court judge as of July 4 2022. References to Justice Yehia as "Her Honour Judge Dina Yehia SC" refers to her previous position at the District Court. We apologise for not using her new title.
Hello and welcome to ESG Matters At Ashurst, and our special Let’s Yarn mini-series presented by me, Trent Wallace. I’m a Wongaibon person who was raised on Darkinjung Country – and I’m the First Nations Lead here at Ashurst. In today’s episode you’ll hear part one of my conversation with Her Honour Judge Dina Yehia SC.
Before we hear that conversation though, it’s important to explain that, here in Australia, we acknowledge at the start of podcasts that we are speaking to you on the country of First Nations people who are part of the oldest continuous living civilisation on earth and who never ceded sovereignty. We acknowledge First Nations Peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work in Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging and to the youth who are working towards a brighter tomorrow.
And so to today’s episode…
What a thrill it was to yarn with Her Honour Judge Dina Yehia SC. We covered so much in a short space of time. So much, in fact, that we couldn’t squeeze it all into one episode!
So what you’re about to hear is part one of two.
In part one, Her Honour speaks with candour about her life and times working in Australia’s criminal justice system and being an advocate for First Nations justice. We talk about her origin story – including how a rebellious, non-English-speaking girl from Egypt became an advocate for criminal and social justice in remote Australia. She talks about self doubt, persistence and the value of learning from Aboriginal mentors.
There’s really so much here in part one – I can’t wait to share it with you – so let’s get into it.
Your Honour, I would like to introduce myself culturally, if I may.
I'm a Wongabon person. I was raised on dark and young country. I spent a lot of time on [inaudible 00:00:09] country. Both of my paternal grandparents were Aboriginal. And my drive towards the law came from a cultural obligation to assist mob and facilitate those gaps in justice. And as I understand, you were born in Egypt?
I was born in Egypt and came to Australia with my family, my parents, and my brother in 1970, so at the age of seven. So yes, that's where I was born. And I've been back since quite a few times because my extended family all reside in Egypt.
That's amazing. And did you feel an inherent cultural obligation to perhaps pursue a career in justice? When you... I recall hearing an interview with you when you said that you knew from the age of 13 that you wanted to pursue a career in law and act as a defence lawyer.
Yes. Well, that is certainly true. So I knew what my calling was from a very young age, and I do call it that, a bit of a vocation rather than just a job. And I was very firm from a very young age about the age of 13, that I wanted to practise law and in particular criminal law. And I saw myself as a defence lawyer. And I think part of that was informed by the cultural background and in particular the politics that were going on in Egypt at the time that we immigrated to Australia. And part of it, I'm not sure where it came from, it was just this very inherent drive to be a criminal lawyer. And I really never swayed from that path. So in one respect, I was very fortunate because I knew what I wanted to do from a very young age.
Absolutely. And that's such a drive that... I shared that similarity at that particular age too. I thought the law was such a noble profession and I wanted to put honour on my family's name through this way. But at 13, what did schooling and education look like? Did it look like a viable option for you to pursue law?
So I think because I had that transition and came to Australia not speaking English, it was a difficult transition. And it took a few years to feel that I belonged in that system of education. And I have to be very frank with you, and probably I shouldn't, given that this is going to be broadcast. But my early years of school were a little bit rebellious and I didn't really settle into school and learning until fifth and sixth form, now year 11 and 12, where I had some very good teachers who really inspired me.
And I found that I really enjoyed study and I inhabited that space for probably the first time. But because my drive was from an earlier age at 13 to be a criminal lawyer, I just knew that I had to engage in the study, I had to get through it. I then had to finish my law degree because that was the only way in which I was actually going to practise and be an advocate and represent people in the way that I wanted to. So while I did enjoy school in those later years, it was really a means to an end in those days.
Absolutely. My mom always said that to me. She used to say to me, "Love it's a means to an end. It's a means to an end." Because I went into a Catholic school and the uniforms were quite rigid, wearing blazers. My parents sacrificed a lot to send me to a private school, and they'd done so since my father's studying at university in his thirties. And I really understand that rebellious streak. I didn't want to adhere to this uniform. I felt it was so boring and so unconventional. It didn't speak to my culture. It didn't speak to any of those things about me personally. And you were finishing up your degree in 1989. So what a year of music, a couple of decades of Australian music. Can you tell me a bit more about that 1989, what did that look like for you finishing that degree?
So relief was a large part of it because it meant that I could go out and practise, which as I say, was that burning desire. And I did take off about three years during my degree. So during the course of my degree, I worked in various jobs and travelled a lot and then would always come back to the law because of that idea that I really wanted to practise. So it was the relief to finish and to do my college of law. And in about August of 1989, I remember having one week off during the college of law, which you had to attend in those days in person for six months. And I had been told about the Western Aboriginal Legal Service. So given that I'd had a week off, I thought I'd do a road trip to Dubbo. I'd never been west of Sydney before to check out this place.
So I spent that week shadowing the principal solicitor and other solicitors at the Western Aboriginal Legal Service and decided this was definitely the job I wanted to apply for. So come December, 1989, when I did apply and was interviewed by the board of directors. It was both a relief to have finished my degree in one piece, but it was also a very exciting period because I was notified pretty soon after the interview that I was successful in the position. And so I knew that this was now the start of that journey that I'd looked forward to for so long.
Wow, that's tremendous to hear that you went backwards and forwards between travelling, working, and living life because so many people that I've encountered in the profession had a rather linear journey towards the law. So I think for all the law students out there and still doing their degrees, trying to get it done, I think Your Honour is providing a lot of hope.
Absolutely. I think two things. One, if you don't know what you want to do from a very young age, that is not a problem. It's not an impediment. You will find what you want to do. So it's not necessary to have this desire from a young age to do a particular thing. If you have it, that's great. If you don't, don't worry about it. And the second thing is, it's okay to take a bit of time to do other things. All of that life experience actually informs who you are as a human being, and I think can only really advance your skills and capacity as a lawyer.
Absolutely. That's great advice. It's fantastic for students to hear that, I think, and even people early in their career starting out and trying different things. As I understand the bus stop from where you'd be collected, you could go across the road and get changed with the... was it the principal solicitor's home that... yes.
Yeah. So that was when I was sent out to Broken Hill. So once a month in those days, you would have to travel to Broken Hill to assist the solicitor who was resident in Broken Hill. So he wasn't the principal solicitor, but he was the resident solicitor. But once a month we'd have to do the very heavy list day in Broken Hill, and then on the Monday. And then on the Tuesday, travelled to Waconia, because Waconia court sat for two or three days in that week.
So I would get on... The mode of travel, of course was bus because the Western Aboriginal Legal Service didn't have funds for flying you into Broken Hill. So you'd get on the bus at about 11:00 PM, late at night, and you would arrive in Broken Hill. I don't know, about 08:00 o'clock. Brian, the solicitor who was resident in Broken Hill, lived across the road from the bus station. So he'd meet me at the bus station, walk me across to his place, I'd change, he'd hand me the list and we'd go off to court and start at 10:00 o'clock. So they were interesting times. They were very interesting times.
Can you tell me a little bit about what was going through your mind first entering that part of New South Wales, but also your time on the bus, getting on there at such a late time at night, but knowing what you had to face the next day and what you had to do. Can you take me through what was going through your mind?
Sure, my recollection of it was that it was always a very exciting time. So I don't have any recollection of being apprehensive or scared or afraid of what might come. I always got on that bus with a sense of excitement and looking forward to what was going to happen once I got to Broken Hill, which was of course to appear in court. So it was always, yeah, a sense of excitement, trying to sleep when you couldn't sleep, because I think you've been travelled out that way. And particularly when the bus is going at a hundred kilometres an hour and there are a lot of rocks on the road, and all you're hearing is bang, bang, bang, bang. And I remember the first trip, I had no idea what on earth was happening. And then when I realised I thought, oh dear.
So it was all very interesting, but never... as I say, I never felt apprehensive or afraid. I was always looking forward to it. And then of course, getting there and actually starting to do the job, that was a little bit... again, never frightened or never apprehensive, always excited, but you did feel like, am I doing this right? Am I best suited to represent this person? Am I the best person for this? Because they need to have the best representation that they possibly could have. And I was a junior solicitor who'd never actually appeared in court prior to going out to Western Aboriginal Legal Service. So you had all of those, I suppose, self-doubts and questioning yourself. But that just, I suppose, spurred me on to make sure that I was the best prepared that I could be because I was very conscious of the fact that we had to be a hundred percent for our clients, and that was the culture then.
It wasn't just me at all. It was the guidance and the mentoring from the principal solicitor, but also all of the Aboriginal staff. We had some extraordinary Aboriginal people who filled positions at the Western Aboriginal Legal Service who had very close relationships to the solicitors and were always mentoring, and they expected a hundred percent of us, and rightly so. So, it was really all about making sure that you could do the best that you could do. So on that trip heading out to Broken Hill, it was really thinking about the law and thinking about how I would represent somebody, what I would say, those sorts of things. And then just really looking forward to getting there and meeting Brian.
It's amazing to see Brian to get there, get changed, get ready after very a little sleep. It's really incredible to hear that and to think about those kinds of themes that are running through. I have to ask though, in 1996, there was a departure from that region, that area of work. What did that look like from 1989 to 1996? What changes could you have noticed?
It's interesting because in that period of time, most of the work that we did... so most of the matters where we represented our clients were matters that were charges relating to things like assault, resist police, offensive language. We used to call it the trifecta. So somebody would swear, one of our clients would swear, the police would approach them to place them under arrest for offensive language. They would shrug them off. That was a resist. The police would try to place them in handcuffs. There would be a push or a punch. That was the assault. So many of the offences that we were appearing in were those types of offences, also violent disorder offences, riot sometimes. My memory in the very early days was that they were the bulk of the matters. And then over the years, there were more charges of violence and sexual assault type matters that we were appearing in. So the nature of the matters changed. Did anything else change? The overcharging didn't change.
The lack of resources and therapeutic programmes didn't change. There were periods where we did have good programmes. For instance, I remember a very good programme in Brew Warren for our juvenile clients. It was a six-month programme, and it meant that they could be engaged in work, and it was going really well. And then the funding stopped, the programme stopped. Those kids were getting into trouble again because there was nothing to do. So while there were periods where there were good things going on, largely over that period, what I didn't see change was proper resources being put into community to provide to the services that were required to help our clients. That didn't change. The overcharging, as I say didn't change. The camaraderie and the support within the Western Aboriginal Legal Service was always a hundred percent and fortunately that didn't change either, which it was a good thing. So yeah.
It's really interesting to reflect on those memories and looking towards that and looking where you are now. I do want to ask though, why were you so invested in First Nations Justice or pursuing that for First Nations peoples? I spent some time out in those particular areas as a child at Dubbo. I have friends as school teachers that way. The climate is really difficult. There are so many cultural nuances at play, so many gaps in various layers of complexities and cyclical success due to funding gaps and things like that as you touched on. So why were you so interested in pursuing that particular group of peoples, mob? Why are you interested in mob?
So I don't know that at the time I engaged in a very conscious or deliberate process of thinking about why. I reflect back now when I'm asked questions like this, and in a way retrospectively construct an answer. But I think the best way I can describe it is because from a young age I wanted to be a lawyer, and because I wanted to be a lawyer in the area of really criminal justice issues and social justice issues.
I think by the time in 89 that I graduated and wanted to be a lawyer, what I had gleaned from my time of study in this country is that the tragedy is that the group of people that are most affected in terms of social injustice and injustice through the criminal justice system of First Nations peoples. Now of course we know that that shouldn't be the way, but that was my impression going through uni. And I think that informed my decision that really, if I'm going to do this and to have some role in trying to be a lawyer that represents the interests of people who are given the most difficult time through the criminal justice system, then really I should work for mob.
It's incredible to hear that perspective and to... that framing of it. I find that really interesting. And before I go into my next question, I want to know, what did your parents think? Did you call them when you were... mom and dad, I'm out here. There's kangaroos, there's everything, the red dirt.
So of course my dad died quite young, but my mother with whom I was very close was horrified at the thought that I would leave her. So her greatest objection was the fact that I was leaving Sydney and going to live in this town called Dubbo. She had no idea where Dubbo was. That was one thing. And then the second thing was that my mother, being an Egyptian woman, had a view that a lawyer was somebody who was really a commercial lawyer, who went and practised law and made a lot of money. So when she was confronted with her daughter's decision that she was moving to Dubbo to work for the Western Aboriginal Legal Service for, I think in those days, I don't know, it was like 14,000, $16,000 a year. I can't remember now. But anyway, other people who were my friends who went through uni who she knew were going off to private law firms in Sydney, took her a little while to come to terms with what was going on and to stop trying to persuade me to stay in Sydney.
So yeah, initially she was not very happy, but it didn't take very long. She came to visit in Dubbo. She met people like Maryanne Haier, who I always talk about, my surrogate mom out there and other people who were my friends from Western New South Wales and who were very supportive. And I think after speaking to her about the work, she came to understand and was very supportive of the decision that I'd made. But initially, it was a lot of pressure to change my mind. And of course the more she tried to change my mind, the more set I was.
I'm glad she got to come and visit and meet your surrogate mother, who I've heard tremendous things about from all kinds of areas of the law. What would you like to tell non-First Nations lawyers who go out and work in community who may not necessarily have the cultural nuance, the understanding of the gaps in justice, they just want to go out and do that kind of work? What would you want to tell them?
I think the first thing that I would want to tell them is you need to understand that you're not the centre of the world and that you don't know everything. I think many lawyers believe that because they are the lawyer, they know everything and they know best. I think for young lawyers who are wanting to go out and work for an Aboriginal Legal Service, for instance, or in the Western zone. You really need to understand that you have to listen to Aboriginal people from community. That is where you learn how you operate. It's not the law. You learn that at university and you learn that craft on your feet in court. But in terms of how you relate to people, which informs how best you represent people, because unless you can relate to people, it's very difficult to get their trust and get instructions and things like that.
So listen, my first piece of advice would be listen to people from community. Secondly, don't think that you know best because I can tell you you don't. And it takes a long time for you as a person coming from outside of community to really understand what's going on and to understand those nuances, which is really important to do. And the third thing I would say is just be humble. You have to be humble. I have told this story before, and I'm sure you have heard it, Trent, that when I was interviewed by that panel, so is a group of 17 or 18 directors and the principal solicitor, all really staunch community elders, right? Of whom I was very intimidated when I first started out. They were marvellous people, but really strong, really staunch. And I was asked the question about why I wanted to work for the Western Aboriginal Legal Service.
And I naively answered because I want to stand up for the rights of Aboriginal people. And one of them said to me, "Well, you leave the politics to us. The politics is for us. All we want from you is to be a good lawyer to represent our mob." And that taught me very early humility. And it also taught me what my rightful place was, and that was to be a lawyer and to represent people's interests in the best way that I could. But I wasn't there to talk for Aboriginal people. I wasn't there to represent their political interests. That was a matter that they were more than capable of doing for themselves. So I suppose humility, listening and not thinking that you are the centre of the world.
Those are all incredible points. And I recall when you spoke on the truth that Aboriginal people tell. When you listen to the truth, oftentimes mob, we're painters, lying or perhaps make out these circumstances in which we leave. But I recall you touching on that truth telling that you are on the receiving end of, and sometimes that can be quite hard when you hear things from community, even as an Aboriginal person, you listen to your elders, you listen to those community members, and if they pull you up, it's for a reason. And there's out of love and care and they've seen it all before. So I really love those chips. I really love that you touched on that as well. Do you recall being shocked by some advice? Do you recall any of those kinds of like, whoa, that's a lot.
I think I remember being... feeling confronted. There was another point when I first started, actually it was, again the day of my interview, and I have told this story before where Maryanne Haier, who was the office manager at that time, and who, as I've said, I became very close to and continued to be very close to, took me aside. I was 26 and she took me aside, I think it was after my interview and she's a very, again, another very strong person. She took me aside and she said something like, "Look, if you're offered the job and you're going to be working with us, you need to understand that you cannot engage in any relationships with clients. You can't go out with clients and all." And she was very firm about it, and I remember because I think of her presentation as much as what the advice she was giving me, I just felt really confronted in the same way that I was when Tombo Winter said to me in the interview, "Listen, you're not here to do the politics. You're here to do the law."
But I was immediately aware of the facts that it was important advice and that I should listen. So it wasn't something that I was offended by or really intimidated by. I realised actually this is very important advice and I need to listen. And there were a lot of instances like that. You'd always listen to the advice from your field officer, for instance, because they were from community. They understood. If you asked a question in conference that maybe was insensitive, they guided you to ask the question another way or perhaps gave you the information themselves. So they were people that were very important in the way that you conducted yourself if you wanted to do so properly.
…And that concludes part one of my two part interview with Her Honour Judge Dina Yehia SC. So we’re only just getting started!
In part two, we talk about:
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