As a County Court Judge, My Anh Tran presides over some of the most complex commercial legal cases in Victoria.
- Advocates are calling for the legal industry to keep up with the needs of Australia’s multicultural society
- A former Supreme Court judge says some people struggle to communicate in their second language under pressure in court
- A 2019 survey found 20 per cent of law graduates in eight major law firms were of Asian cultural background, but only 7 per cent of those who made it to partner level were Asian
It’s a position that sees her held in high esteem. But during her legal career, Ms Tran says she hasn’t always felt respected.
As a young lawyer, she said she was told to change her name and was denied opportunities because of her race.
“I was certainly stereotyped as an Asian female,” Ms Tran said.
“There was a lot of well-meaning advice to change my name, a number of compliments on how well I spoke English.”
Early in her career, Ms Tran said many of her superiors considered her “someone who could be relied upon to work extremely hard, but perhaps not so much someone to whom speaking roles should be given, or who could be trusted to run cases.”
While two decades have passed since Ms Tran was admitted to the Victorian Bar, she said the country’s legal system still had a “long way to go” to embrace cultural diversity.
‘Cultural nuances … not necessarily understood’
During a speech at an Asian Australian Lawyers Association (AALA) event last week, Ms Tran said changing legal culture was “complex and difficult”, but it was “no longer good enough to shy away from those hard questions”.
“We need to think about a change to the culture of the law, to one which embraces and encourages and accommodates diversity. [To] one that doesn’t start from an assumption that behaviours are founded in the white European culture,” she said.
Advocacy groups like the AALA want the legal industry to keep up with the evolving needs of Australia’s multicultural society.
The AALA is calling for a raft of changes to be made to how courtrooms operate, including comprehensive benchbooks for judges to help them understand specific cultural customs.
“There’s a number of cultural nuances to litigants that are from diverse backgrounds, and they’re not necessarily understood by the judiciary,” AALA president Molina Asthana said.
Dowry, where money is paid from a woman’s family to her husband upon marriage, was one concept some family law judges failed to grasp, Ms Asthana said.
“[The judges] have not taken that into account when distributing the assets, which has left the woman financially worse-off,” she said.
Ms Asthana also points to informal business dealings in Chinese communities that can result in favours being exchanged without documentation — something that can be problematic when cases reach court.
The AALA argues the current system of parties being required to give verbal evidence in court can often be stressful for those with poor English skills, sometimes leading to confusion and misunderstandings.
The association wants courts to be more willing to accept written evidence from those litigants, much like what is permitted for victims in sexual assault trials.
That proposal is backed by Paul Coghlan AO, a recently retired Victorian Supreme Court judge with Chinese ancestry, who has presided over some of the state’s biggest cases.
“You’ll often find people who are quite fluent in their second language. When you put them under the pressure of what happens in the courtroom, they won’t necessarily cope quite as well,” he said.
Advocate says diversity doesn’t show in legal sector’s senior ranks
Figures from the 2021 Census show more than a quarter of people living in Australia were born overseas, and almost half the population has a migrant parent.
However Ms Asthana said that diverse makeup was not replicated among judicial officers and the senior ranks of the Australian legal system.
In 2019, a survey of eight major law firms found 20 per cent of their law graduates were of Asian cultural background, but only 7 per cent of those who made it to partner level were Asian.
In the 2020-21 financial year, the Victoria Legal Services Board and Commissioner (VLSBC) surveyed 21,000 practising lawyers in the state and found a combined 89 per cent reported having “Australian”, English, Irish or Scottish ancestry.
Other leading backgrounds were Italian (8 per cent), Chinese (7 per cent), Greek (5 per cent) and Indian (3 per cent), according to the VLSBC figures. Fewer than 1 per cent identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
In August, Victorian Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said a lack of diversity could damage the community’s faith in the legal system.
“It doesn’t mean you need to have someone who’s of the same cultural or ethnic background as you, but you do need to see that range of views and that range of experience,” she said in an interview with the Victorian Law Foundation.
“We know that organisations that have a diverse workforce do better. The people within them do better, and the people they engage with do better. So why wouldn’t we apply that to the justice system?
“It would be fantastic to reflect the diversity of our community.
“We’ve started along the way and there’s a way to go.”
The Law Institute of Victoria has also previously campaigned for more people of different backgrounds to come through the ranks, and the Victorian Bar said it was “committed to promoting equality and diversity in the legal profession”.
The Bar’s equality and diversity policy says it aims to remove impediments to lawyers’ success, and wants more members from under-represented groups.
One measure it takes is providing financial assistance to First Nations barristers, although the overall number of Indigenous barristers in the profession is extremely small.