Monique Hurley is a Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre where she works in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organizations to identify opportunities to eliminate racial injustice. Prior to this, Monique studied overseas at Columbia Law School where she was a Fullbright Scholar and had the opportunity to work at the UN.
Today she reflects on her journey into law, her experiences overseas, and the ways we can all contribute to making workplaces more equal spaces.
Going back to your university days, what inspired you to study and subsequently pursue a career in law?
I have wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember. I’ve always wanted to use my skills – I love reading and constructing a strong written argument – in a way that helps challenge institutions and power structures that create and maintain an unequal world. My parents always encouraged me in this – as a family we went to protests and May Day rallies, and my mum still has letters I wrote to politicians of all persuasions calling for worker’s rights, climate justice and reproductive freedom. Studying law was the perfect fit for me and I started my degree straight after high school and spent some of the best years of my life at Monash University reading and writing about the law, and plotting ways to use what I learnt in meaningful ways. After graduating, I've worked in a law firm, the courts, for an Aboriginal Legal Service and in community legal centres. I've also done a lot of volunteer work with community based organisations and participated in programs like Liberty Victoria’s Rights Advocacy Project. I've increasingly been driven by how I can leverage my skills and privilege to tackle injustice in all the ways it manifests, and particularly by working alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations to challenge the systemic racism pervasive across the country, because there can be no justice without First Nations justice.
In 2018, you joined the Human Rights Law Centre and have since focused on advocating in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. What has been your proudest achievement in this role?
At the Human Rights Law Centre I work in solidarity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations to identify opportunities for strategic litigation, law reform and advocacy to eliminate racial injustice in the legal system. I had the privilege of being part of the legal team that represented the children of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in the coronial inquest into her preventable death, and the work I am proudest of is the work I have done supporting her family in their advocacy to end Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody. Tanya Day was a much-loved sister, mother, grandmother and community advocate, who died after she was arrested for falling asleep on a train. She was locked up in a concrete police cell for being ‘drunk in public’ and subsequently fell and hit her head on a number of occasions. The coronial inquest considered whether systemic racism played a role in her death, and the advocacy of her family led to the Victorian Government finally acting on a recommendation made by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody over 30 years ago and commit to decriminalising the offence of being drunk in a public place. Everyone should follow their ongoing work – via the Dhadjowa Foundation – which supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families whose loved ones have died in custody.
Your work focuses on criminal justice reform and ending racial injustice in the legal system. Does the legal system have gendered and racial impacts?
While laws often appear to be written in a neutral way and people might assume that they have the same impact on everyone – that is not the case. The ongoing impacts of colonisation, discriminatory policing, systemic racism and years of ‘tough on crime’ politics have got us to a point where our criminal legal system turbo-charges injustice. The prison population has exploded in recent years and, between 2009 – 2019, the number of women in Victorian prisons more than doubled despite crime rates remaining relatively flat. This has largely been due to Victoria’s bail laws, which are an example of law reform that has had a dangerous and discriminatory impact on women, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. The bail laws were changed swiftly in response to a specific incident of horrific violence committed by one man, and have made it harder for everyone to get bail, particularly women experiencing intersecting forms of disadvantage like family violence, homelessness, disadvantage and mental illness. More women are now being denied bail, not because they pose a risk to the community, but because they themselves are at risk. Bail reform in Victoria is long overdue and, at times during 2021, more than half the women in prison were warehoused there on remand before being sentenced for the alleged offending they were arrested for.
You’ve studied overseas at Columbia Law School. What were some of the highlights of your time overseas?
Highlights included Spring Break in Puerto Rico with one of my best friends! But in all seriousness, I was really lucky to be able to study my LLM overseas as a Fulbright scholar and learn from experiences in other places to understand more about the role that lawyers can play in challenging systemic racism at home. Highlights from my studies included doing an internship with the Bronx Defenders – a public defender’s office that pioneers holistic legal practice – being a research assistant to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings and undertaking a clinical legal education subject on challenging the consequences of mass incarceration in America. I learned a lot about creative and impactful litigation and advocacy being done to reduce the number of people in prisons, and to abolish cruel and degrading practices like solitary confinement. I also attended my first Rebellious Lawyering conference while in America. That conference taught me a lot about 'movement lawyering' and drove home the importance of work aimed at bringing about systemic change being led by the people most affected by injustice. Last year, it was really exciting to see an incredible group of women lawyers bring RebLaw to Australia!
Do you have any advice for young women interested in pursuing a similar career pathway to yours?
I have so many thoughts on this – and am always really happy to speak with women who have any questions. I’m a big believer in women supporting other women, and have been lucky enough to have incredible women champion me throughout my career. Championing them back, and opening doors for the women that come after you, are important ways for us all to contribute to making workplaces more equal spaces. I also recommend joining your union and collectively advocating for what you need, and also finding a mentor who you respect, is ahead of you in their career, external to your organisation and locking in semi-regular catch ups to learn from, and test ideas with, them. In the human rights law space in particular, critical reflection is key. When thinking about the work that you might want to do, think about whether it is being driven and informed by the people impacted by it. When thinking about where you might want to work and/or volunteer, consider whether the organisation attempts to shift power away from existing institutions and back to affected communities. And if you find yourself in an organisation where these discussions aren’t happening – start them. I also generally recommend therapy for everyone and making time to rest.