How Indigenous, female barristers like Melia Benn are changing the legal system

How Indigenous, female barristers like Melia Benn are changing the legal system

Melia Benn

It can seem implausible, but in Queensland, there are currently only two Aboriginal female barristers at work. Cairns-based Mamu and Gunggandji woman, Melia Benn is one of them. At just 32, the James Cook University graduate is among the 7 percent of female barristers who make up the entire legal profession.

Recent surveys published by Australian Women Lawyers and the Law Council of Australia (Law Council) reveal historic proclivities of systemic discrimination against women at the bar. Despite this, women like Benn are finding their careers as courtroom advocates deeply rewarding. 

I spoke to Benn as she prepares to appear on a special episode of SBS’s Insight: First Nations Mentors, where she will discuss the impacts her mentor, Barrister Josh Creamer, has had on her career.

“It’s rewarding to be part of cases that can make a real difference,” she says. “I’m working across criminal defence, and taking on class actions representing First Nations people. I have Aboriginal women and elders telling me their stories. It’s a real privilege.”

Rewards can come with challenges and Benn is no stranger to them. As one of only two female barristers working in Queensland, and one of a smaller minority as a woman of colour, Benn is aware of the pressure placed on her to represent her community.

“I try to do what I can, making small differences case by case,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure and responsibility, knowing the community is looking at you. But I take every opportunity and do the best I can.” 

Benn has previously worked as Senior Legal Officer at the Director of Public Prosecutions and at the Coroners Court of Queensland, as Counsel Assisting the Northern Coroner.

On Mabo Day earlier this year (June 3), Benn delivered a paper titled ‘Love v the Commonwealth and constitutional recognition; is Australia getting close?’ at a symposium hosted by Monash Law and the Australian Association of Constitutional Law. She shared the conversations she had with four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women regarding sovereignty.

The case, which was argued at the High Court of Australia, held that Aboriginal Australians could not be classified as aliens under section 51 of the Australian Constitution. (The majority of judges concluded that “Aboriginal Australians (understood according to the tripartite test in Mabo [No 2]) are not within the reach of the ‘aliens’ power conferred by s 51(xix) of the Constitution”.)

“Sovereignty is one of those words that can mean different things to different people, but for the women I spoke to, it cannot be separated out from our connection to country,” Benn said.

“Ultimately, through these conversations I found that this case is seen as a powerful symbol of recognition, it is seen as helping to build momentum towards recognition, but it is not a substitute for constitutional recognition.” 

In 2019, Benn was interviewed by Fiona Fleming, from the UK-based research, ranking and publishing firm, The Legal 500. Fleming is the firm’s Head of Inclusion, Equality, and Culture, and asked Benn how her schooling impacted her decision to study law. Benn had taken Legal Studies in high school, and transferred to law at university after starting off in an Arts degree.

“I met some really incredible people in my last year at university,” she said. “I suddenly had these people who were showing me ‘this is how you can use your degree’- and they helped me figure out my ‘why’.”

During her Bar course, she met Waanyi and Kalkadoon barrister Josh Creamer with Benn describing this encounter as “a real turning point.”

“He taught one of the classes, and I introduced myself just to say thank you for being part of the process that got me there,” Benn relayed. “He asked ‘When are you coming to the Bar?’ and I replied, ‘Not for a while.’”

“At the time, I was planning to go back to the Coroner’s Office to continue that job for a while. Going out on your own at the private Bar costs a fortune. You don’t get paid until you get clients, and it was all a big leap for me. Josh said ‘No, you have to come now. The time is now.’”

Creamer told Benn it was necessary she work towards becoming a barrister because there were things witnesses would not share with him because he was a man.

“He kept saying, ‘I really need a female Aboriginal barrister because there are conversations I can’t have with women,” Benn told Fleming in last year’s interview.

“Later on, we caught up again and he said ‘I want you to come to the Bar, I want you to know that I’ll support you.’ He then introduced me to people and of course those introductions led to other introductions.”

Creamer offered Benn a door tenancy at their first meeting and said he would try to get her on the class action cases he was working on, including the Landmark stolen wages case which settled for $190 million last July.

“He came through with that by securing the door tenancy and giving me my first ever paid brief by having me junior him on a matter when I first went to the Bar in January 2019,” Benn says. “After 6 months of being at the Bar he got me onto the Counsel team of a class action and we started working together in that space.” 

Benn’s mentors have not only included Creamer but a range of influential women and she sees these relationships as key to her career progress so far.

“I’ve had amazing female mentors here in Cairns too,” she says. “They’ve supported me, and have been great leaders.”

Mentorship is a critical aspect to Benn’s work as a legal advocate and she’s paying back by reciprocating the effort. “I don’t currently have any formal mentees, but my passion is bringing together First Nations lawyers and students,” she says.

Later this month, Benn will host an Indigenous lawyers meet-up in Cairns.

“We’ll gather the few First Nations solicitors working across the law in our area so they can look around and see each other and know we can call each other anytime. It’s about networking, and sharing experiences and developing relationships with each other.”

Having chambers in Cairns and Brisbane, Benn travels often between the two cities, and is looking forward to the next twelve months.

“I’ll keep working on the cases I have and build up my practice,” she says. “I have some class action work at the moment. I look forward to staying busy and doing good work. I hope there are more First Nations people who will join us at the Bar.”

With so much ambition and fortitude, I ask Benn how she unwinds.

“I sit in my backyard and lie on the earth. It’s very reenergising. Lying down and thinking about being present with your back on the earth — it feels a lot like reconnecting to nature.” 

You can hear more from Melia and other First Nations mentors tonight on a special NAIDOC Insight episode at 8.30pm on SBS.

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