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The butterfly effect

A roll call of Professor John Tobin’s former students from Melbourne Law School is an impressive and formidable force of intellect and dedication to the principles of human rights and social justice. They are in far-flung places across the globe from Haiti to Denmark, central Australia to New York, working in human rights organisations including the United Nations, UNICEF and many more.

They stay in touch too. John’s email in-box is crammed with stories from former students about their current public interest law research. The shelves in his office are adorned with notes, cards, pictures, photos, books with inscriptions and pieces of paper that have clearly been passed around a classroom until the page is full with scrawls of thanks. He speaks of his students easily, as though they are part of a large extended family.

John Tobin 08 160 x 120“One was established in practice at a national law firm. He’s just bought a Hilux and taken off to work in central Australia in an Aboriginal legal service. Another went on to NYU Law School, topped the Masters program and is starting a two-year public interest fellowship. They’re on the journey. They’re creating the ‘possible histories of the future’. They may not be in Collins Street, but their experiences are so real and rewarding,” John says.

He is just as proud of the student who studied law and went to work in the film industry, and another who decided to study and teach in China. “Education is a vocation. A vocation to give your students the best opportunity to realise their abilities, to give them a belief in themselves.” He doesn’t mean simply pride or confidence, he means getting them to understand what they are passionate about, and the confidence to follow that passion.

Evidently a gifted teacher, John was awarded the Barbara Falk Award for Teaching Excellence by the University of Melbourne in 2010 and the following year was awarded a national citation for outstanding contribution to student learning in the area of human rights. He has completed stints as a Visiting Professor at the Academy of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Washington College of Law, American University, the New York University School of Law and Queens University Belfast. He was also a senior scholar in residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law School.

There are no teachers in John’s family (although his partner Lorraine is a secondary school teacher) ? but his current vocation is one he expects to maintain for the rest of his career. Making that connection for students between the law and the difference it can make to the lives of other people is constant motivation.

“There are textbooks and High Court cases which students study at university, but there’s far more to understanding the law in practice. Speaking to clients, thinking about what it is to be a lawyer.  For me that’s critical. Being a part of a law school is an extremely privileged existence. We can often take things for granted until you meet someone who can’t write a letter, who literally needs you to help them write that letter,” he said.

John grew up in suburban Melbourne with two sisters (one now a lawyer, the other an occupational therapist) and his parents. His father was a magistrate, an uncle worked in the DPP and his grandfather was an inspector with Victoria Police.

“I remember sitting at the back of courtrooms at a very young age. I grew up with awareness that there were bad things that happened. I also was aware that bad things came out of bad environments,” he said.

His environment, including his primary and secondary school experiences, valued the law and, in particular, instilled a healthy respect for social justice and service to the community.

John’s recollections of law school, which he commenced directly after year 12 are not as glowing: “The study of law didn’t engage me at all. I found it terribly boring. I was doing combined law/commerce. Commerce was even more boring,” he laughs. He had considered architecture and physiotherapy.

“I was organised, I could pass exams, but I felt like an outsider. Now we are much better at creating community at the Law School and on the campus. We are better at developing connections between students. Back then, not so much.”

But the experience was formative. “A lot of the way I teach now is based on that experience, of understanding what would have engaged me then.” He describes using the popular (completely un-law related) musical series Glee as a discussion prompt about legal practice.

“I want the students I teach to see beyond getting the degree. They have to find what they are passionate about. It’s about shaping your life according to your values.”

“How can I create the space for students to think about that, to believe in themselves in terms of what they value? This is the key to converting the study of law into practical application, via change agents driven by strong core beliefs.”

After completing the commerce degree, John deferred from his law degree in 1990 and headed off overseas. He meticulously planned the year to pack in maximum time for “things that matter”. He taught at a school in Tanzania (‘where these kids walked for hours through the mud every day to get to a school that had no windows, no desks and no books”); volunteered in the USA at a summer camp for kids with disabilities and at a community centre in Liverpool (UK) which aimed to engage very socially and economically disadvantaged young people.

The experience shifted his academic focus. He returned to an arts course majoring in English and politics and learned over time to enjoy the optional law subjects within the course – viewed through a prism of newly found theoretical approaches.

His first paper, ‘Family violence: opening up the silence’, (Melbourne University Law Review  1992) examined the law as it related to family violence matters and applied a feminist perspective to see if the law worked to eliminate or sustain family violence.

“I discovered that I liked writing and exploring complex social and legal issues. It was also rewarding to have my work published.”  So after a few years of practising as a lawyer he undertook a Master of Laws in London where he specialised in human rights law. “I was looking for a language to give voice to my concerns about disadvantage, about inequity.  Human rights gave me that language.”

This ‘voice’ is something he keenly looks for, and coaxes from, his students: “I want to hear their voice. They are so busy sometimes listening to other people’s voices – and the law can be about that – it can be hard to find their own. The ones that have been published have definitely discovered their voice.”

He recalls law classes taught by Professor Hilary Charlesworth who “gave you a sense of what you could become” and, after completing his arts/law degree in 1993, spent some time in practice beginning with articles at Minter Ellison, then the Youth Legal Service at Legal Aid.

“That was eye opening, coalface stuff, acting for kids with really complex needs. Some of my clients were killed – two suicides and one murder. That’s a long way from my upbringing in Ivanhoe. I met some inspiring people at Legal Aid, looking out for the most vulnerable people in our State,” he explains.

In 1999 the opportunity to work with Professor Philip Alston at UNICEF arose. Alston was instrumental in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and together they worked on projects to examine and promote the rights of children. John has since published numerous reports and articles on children’s rights. His book, The Right to Health in International Law, was published by Oxford University Press in January 2012.

John is currently working with Professor Alston on a project (funded by an ARC Discovery Grant) to produce a comprehensive commentary on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The mistreatment of children troubles him deeply but also spurs him on: “My 9-year-old son (John has four children) discussed his class motto with me recently, ‘dream, believe, achieve’, but sometimes when you look at the world, that can be hard for children and indeed for my students to hold onto,” he confesses.

Nurturing well-rounded lawyers is one way: “It’s important for lawyers to be good technicians, but we also have to be reflective: “For whom am I acting? Why am I acting?” His answer – to himself and to his students – is “to assist and enable people… Lawyering and indeed the law is ultimately about human relationships and we cannot afford to forget this”.

*John was awarded this year’s LIV Paul Baker Award. This article was first published in Melbourne Law School News in June 2014 and is also published online at the MLS website here.

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