Pauline Wright
Thursday, May 11, 2017
Justinian in Law Society NSW, On the Couch, Pauline Wright

Ms Wright ... A busy bee, if ever there was one ... Pauline Wright, actor, swimmer, lifesaver, campaigner, playwright, passionate devotee to good causes ... And president of the Law Society of NSW ... Meet the person behind the whirlwind 

Pauline Wright: hankering for Mum's apple crumble

WITH a full agenda Pauline Wright is already well into her presidency of the Law Society of New South Wales. She graduated from Macquarie University in Arts Law in 1985 and was admitted as a solicitor in the same year. She is a principal of PJ Donnellan & Co Solicitors in Gosford and is an accredited specialist in local government and planning law and a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

She has been on the council of the Law Society almost continuously for the last 20 years. She is also an executive member of the Law Council of Australia, a past director of the Law and Justice Foundation and the Legal Aid Commission of NSW, and chairs Legal Aid's monitoring committee. 

But wait ... there's more. 

For the past several years Pauline has also been president of the central coast chapter of the Urban Development Institute of Australia (NSW Division) and is the senior vice-president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, having been actively involved since 1988.

Apart from her wide experience in local government, planning and environmental law, she has considerable experience in property law and commercial litigation and an extensive background in criminal law.

Her wider interests include the theatre, music, ocean swimming and surf lifesaving and she was a founder of the 5 Lands Walk community cultural festival on the Central Coast of NSW. 

Obviously, she's not busy enough because she found time to climb onto Justinian's couch ... 

Describe yourself in three words.

Lawyer, actor, human.

What are you currently reading? 

"Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All" by Jonas Jonasson - a hilarious escape, with thoroughly improbable but somehow utterly familiar characters. Maybe that says something about my experience in criminal law. 

What's your favourite film?

I could say Citizen Kane! No, it has to be O Brother, Where Art Thou? I just love that crazy cross between The Wizard of Oz and The Odyssey with a healthy dose of Mississippi music in the mix. Brilliant!

Who has been the most influential person in your life? 

My father. Born in 1925 on ANZAC Day, he grew up in a time without electricity on a farm outside Perth with a one-legged WWI veteran father and an indomitable, piano-thumping mother, catching fish and rabbits for dinner during the Depression. He's one of the last remaining WWII crew of the HMAS Gascoyne and was ultimately a civil engineer. Favourite expressions are "Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay! ... Fair crack of the whip! ... [and] Strike me pink!"

He plays mouth organ, loves dogs, red wine and bushwalking, and believes in giving everyone a fair go. I think that's the main thing I learnt from him - don't prejudge anyone and be fair in everything you do. 

When were you happiest? 

On stage at Avoca Beach Picture Theatre, immersed in my role as Frida Kahlo, and suddenly feeling the audience respond to this character in this play, a play I'd written. Unforgettable. I wrote the play, "The Great Masquerade: Frida Kahlo, a Streetcar and Desire," for an artists' group I founded up on the Central Coast called the 5 Lands Artists Collective.

What is your favourite piece of music? 

My favourite "contemporary" song is Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" for sure, but in classical, I love "Mon Coeur s'Ouvre a ta Voix" by Saint-Saëns.

What initiatives are you implementing at the Law Society? 

I'm targeting three main legal policy areas this year: closing the Indigenous justice gap; finding a better way to deal with people seeking refuge in Australia; and stimulating discussion on why the rule of law matters - issues around the importance of the courts and judiciary in a democracy, access to justice and civil liberties.

I think lawyers have a duty to talk about these things and, yes, to defend them. I'm also keen to show the human side of lawyers with my fundraising initiatives "Just Music" and "Just Art" - this is a charity competition where lawyers and law students submit original works on the theme of justice, which will culminate in a concert and an art exhibition. Funds will go to my chosen charity, the Bara Barang Aboriginal Corporation which helps Indigenous youth with employment and life skills through connection with culture. 

Justice Rares was critical of too many litigation solicitors taking food from the mouths of barristers. Do you agree? 

I don't think we'll force our colleagues at the bar to starve! Solicitors and barristers are most effective when they work together. Depending on levels of experience and expertise, our roles in case preparation vary and a well-run case will take advantage of the particular skills each lawyer brings to it.

There is no magic about being admitted to the bar - a solicitor of 30 years' experience is likely to draft better pleadings than a six month-old barrister straight out of university, but by the same token a barrister with many years as a solicitor and many at the bar will no doubt have much greater skills than a less experienced solicitor. 

What is in your refrigerator? 

Champagne, stinky cheese, apples and salmon.

What makes you frightened? 

Orange-faced misogynists in positions of world power, unhinged leaders with nuclear weapons, and extremists of all persuasions. Oh, and moths.

The state government has just announced tougher law and order measures, including getting rid of suspended sentences. What's your response?  

Removing sentencing options such as suspended sentences from the arsenal that magistrates and sentencing judges have to work with in our justice system is really concerning. The abolition of suspended sentences will have a disproportionate impact on people in the bush where there are fewer community resources available for supervised bonds, community service orders or ICOs. It is likely to mean more people serving full-time gaol sentences and, inevitably, more Indigenous people among them.

Who would you like to play you in a film about your life?

Isla Fisher! I love her work. Plus she's short enough. 

Who would you most like to be with in a lift that has broken down? 

A fireman with a ladder in his handbag. Or Kitty Flanagan – smart, sharp and a brilliant observer of humanity. 

Why law, and not another worthwhile pursuit in life? 

I always wanted to be a famous artist, and was all set to go when the art school I enrolled in closed down a few days before I was due to start.  So, I studied law instead!  But at Macquarie Uni so I could do Mass Communications and make films at the same time.

What was your most interesting case as a solicitor? 

It's one I'm still working on so I can't say too much about it, but it highlights the plight of so many women with violent partners. My client was being viciously assaulted by her partner when she picked up a vegetable knife and stabbed him once, causing his death. She's been charged with murder. I've noticed so many times over the years that it's the "winner" of an altercation who is seen as the perpetrator. The question is, had my client not picked up that knife, would the deceased now be the one facing trial for her murder?

What was the most important opportunity you didn't take? 

Going to the bar when I was about 35 years old. Instead, I accepted a partnership in a small law firm - and a part-time job as a fairy (Polly Pippin the Boot Fairy at children's parties, to be precise). 

If you were on death row, what would you request for your last meal?  

 Runny, stinky cheese on crusty French bread with a good glass of red. Followed by Mum's apple crumble.

If you were a foodstuff, what would you be?

A strawberry sponge cake. I don't know why I said that!

Who do you most admire professionally?

Gillian Triggs, for standing up with dignity under pressure. She might not be perfect, but she's up there for me.

What is your favourite word?

"Liaison." I love its sound and malleability.

What would you change about Australia?

I'd like to see compassion win more readily over fear in public discourse.

What do you hope to achieve by the end of your term as president of the Law Society?

If I can help to make even one change that reduces the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in detention, I'll feel it's been worth every minute I've put in over the past 20 years volunteering at the Law Society. 

What comes into your mind when you shut your eyes and think of the word "law"? 

It's the third leg on a stool holding up society. If you kick it away, we fall.

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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