Public interest and native title law specialist Mr Peter Seidel is one of a growing band of lawyers keen to defend the legal rights of some of the most disadvantaged members of the community. KAREN STICHTENOTH reports on a Monash graduate who is championing the rights of Indigenous Australians.
Mr Peter Seidel.
A chance encounter with a solicitor from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service at a dinner in mid-1993 has led to a remarkable career in public interest law for Monash graduate Mr Peter Seidel (BEc 1986, LLB 1989).
The solicitor told him that Melbourne law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler (ABL) was looking for a young lawyer interested in dealing with Indigenous matters. At the time, the native title debate was running hot and ABL took what Mr Seidel considers a courageous decision - to work for and promote Indigenous interests.
Mr Seidel, who had been working at the Federal Court, successfully applied for the position and immediately began work on the Yorta Yorta case. Ten years later, he is a partner at the firm where he acts on a range of native title, public interest and commercial litigation matters.
Over the past 10 years, Mr Seidel has gained wide recognition for his work with the Yorta Yorta people, whose native title claims are now being pursued through international instruments such as the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
His work on Indigenous issues has evolved into a consuming and passionate interest and is strongly supported by ABL, which has a long-standing commitment to public interest law and pro bono work with environment organisations and Indigenous communities.
As well as his ongoing work with the Yorta Yorta people, Mr Seidel is working with a groups of artists from Australia's East Kimberley region - the Neminuwarlin Aboriginal Performance Group and Jirrawun Arts. He has been involved in establishing their corporate structures so that traditional decision-making processes are reflected in the constitution of the organisations. He has also helped them draft contracts with the ABC and the Perth and Melbourne international arts festivals.
Mr Seidel is also involved in the task of incorporating a confederation of Indigenous nations along the Murray River so that, in effect, they will be able to speak with a unified voice on issues of universal application along the Murray.
"We are involved in setting up legal structures to reflect the way people do business on the ground because the people rightly do not accept antiquated and patronising legislative structures that are forced on them," he says.
Mr Seidel's path towards championing the legal rights of the disadvantaged began during his final year as a law student at Monash University when he undertook work experience at the Springvale Legal Service.
He relished the opportunity to use what he had learnt and give something back to the community.
"The experience sparked an interest that had been developing for some time," he says. "I learnt a lot through that role. It was a great opportunity to be involved in an interface between the university and private practice and was a great springboard for me."
Mr Seidel, who began his combined economics/law degree in 1983, can recall several people who had a great influence on him - among them Ms Melissa Castan, whom he met in his first year studying legal process and still maintains contact with, and Ms Jenny Sharp, a lecturer in legal process.
"Jenny had a passion for the law and it rubbed off on those in the class. I and two others became devoted to Indigenous issues," Mr Seidel says. "It was interesting that in just that one class there had been such a strong connection with Indigenous causes, and I suspect that was due in part to Jenny Sharp's passion.
"Professor Louis Waller was also a great influence on me. I took his class in evidence, and he showed me what the law is about and the importance of methodology and preparation, timing and patience."
Mr Seidel finished his economics degree at the end of 1985 and took a year off to
travel around Europe. He returned to complete his law degree in 1988 and graduated in 1989.
Reflecting on his time at Monash, he says the camaraderie he experienced was something special. He is still in touch with a few lecturers and former students, and through his work has become a dedicated supporter of Monash's Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.
This association has led to ABL awarding a scholarship this year for an Australian Indigenous person to study law. The scholarship is in keeping with the broad aims of The Monash Law School Foundation, of which ABL is a global partner.
Mr Seidel cites his work with the Yorta Yorta as a major highlight during his legal career and regards his participation in their struggle as "a great life experience".
"It has been a real privilege to see how people in an extremely dignified way cope with systemic pressure. I know their struggle will one day prove fruitful for them and that justice will accommodate them."