When UNSW introduced a law degree in 1971, it was the first time since the 19th century that a new law program had been introduced in New South Wales. Since then, UNSW Law & Justice graduates and academics have driven law reforms and advocated for social justice across Australia and beyond.

In celebration of our 50th anniversary, we’ve interviewed Professor David Dixon, who was the Dean of Law from 2006 to 2016; and Dr Vicki Sentas, who is our Director of Impact and Engagement, and has been teaching criminal law, criminology, and policing at UNSW for almost ten years.

When asked what he considered the impact of UNSW Law & Justice to have been over the past 50 years, Prof. Dixon pointed out the breadth of the Faculty’s influence.

50 years of impactful stories

“UNSW Law and Justice has demonstrated that law faculties can be different from the old model – in their research, teaching, engagement with the world, and how the staff and students treat each other. It began with a very distinctive vision encapsulating all of these attributes and that vision remains strong and relevant today,” he said.

“It is a remarkable story of institutional culture thriving, surviving, adapting while staying true to itself. It is that story of impact which leads to us still having Hal Wootten’s words on a banner at the entry to the Law & Justice Building: ‘A Law School should have and communicate to its students a keen concern for those on whom the law bears harshly’”.

Prof. Dixon highlighted UNSW’s rich history of continuing leadership in Aboriginal law and justice – from the involvement in the establishment of the Redfern Legal Centre, through to programs educating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lawyers, to the Indigenous Law Centre, and contributions to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

How centres played an integral role in the Faculty's research

Prof. Dixon noted that the Faculty’s legal research, advocacy and service-providing centres have also amplified the contribution that our graduates and academics have made.

The Kingsford Legal Centre (KLC) ’s service to thousands of people who would otherwise lack legal advice and clinical legal education of generations of law students have played a pivotal part in the Faculty’s history, Prof. Dixon said.

Many areas of the Faculty’s work have contributed to policy changes and legal reform. An example is contributions to reform in criminal law and justice, from the paradigm-shifting ‘Four Davids’ Criminal Laws book and the associated activism on prisoners’ rights and other issues to current work on policing practices and regulation.

Another, tackling one of the great issues of our time, is refugee law. The combined impact of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the service-providing Refugee Advice and Case work Service has been of critical importance, with academics undertaking rigorous research on complex domestic and international and difficult problems faced by refugees, Prof. Dixon said. The award of Officer of the Order of Australia to the Kaldor Centre’s founding director Jane McAdam is just one recognition of the impact of work in this area.

The success of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law has also set a new standard for high quality, policy-engaged research centres. The G+T Centre leads public debate in Australia on a range of constitutional and other public law issues

“In addition, the Faculty’s leading innovative work in private law shows that justice and critical perspectives are as relevant in property, commercial and corporate law as elsewhere.

“It is all about a balancing use of substantive law as a tool of social justice with rights-based approaches. We’ve achieved this with the work of our affiliated centres – the Diplomacy Training Program, Youth Law Australia, the Grata Fund, the Australian Pro Bono Centre, and the Refugee Advice and Casework Service,” Prof. Dixon said.

Greater access to justice

Dr Sentas added that “the Australian Legal Information Institute (AustLII, a joint service provided by UNSW and UTS law faculties) which provides free access to legal materials, has dramatically improved access to justice through better access to information and shaped the public policy agenda.” Like so much of the Faculty’s work, AustLII’s impact is not confined to Australia: through its leadership of the free access to law movement, AustLII has supported legal and political development in many countries.

“One of our greatest collective achievements is how the Faculty has over the decades expanded the space for how effective policy and law reform is done, making the process and content more inclusive. What is most meaningful are the countless stories where staff and students have amplified the voices of communities, working alongside marginalised communities to advocate social change. To me, this is one of our most important contributions,” Dr Sentas said.

“It’s staggering to learn about some of the lesser-known impacts of staff and students over the life of the Faculty. Only a fraction of these stories is captured in the pages of this newsletter. I was struck to learn that the late Sandra Egger, Associate Dean of Law & Justice from 2002-04, then Head of School from 2004 to 2007, was instrumental in exposing the imprisonment and torture of children in adult jails in Cambodia leading to significant reforms. Similarly, I learned that Andrew Byrnes worked to try to stop people from being executed by the death penalty in Indonesia.

“There are hundreds more stories, and stories of failure, where governments and institutions haven’t listened, but these endeavours are equally important in building the foundations for future change,” Dr Sentas said.

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the Faculty?

Prof. Dixon said that a big challenge would be to maintain the distinctive vision and culture of the Faculty through changing times.

“The agenda seems clear: our greatest challenges will be climate change and global human movement. Within Australia, finally coming to terms with crimes of the past, beginning with constitutional recognition of Australia’s First Peoples, must be a priority.  Our greatest opportunity will be to respond effectively to these challenges in ways that restore Australia’s reputation as global citizen committed to human rights and justice,” Prof. Dixon said.

In Dr Sentas’ opinion, “successive crises in higher education policy and funding” remain a consistent and increasing challenge.

“The crisis of growing economic inequalities in the face of climate change and the urgent need for the redistribution of wealth on a global scale makes for a sobering reset of our priorities in legal education, research and activism.

“Supporting the self-determination of First Nations in this country and elsewhere, underpins the justice needed to make gains in every other domain. A properly funded and equitable public education system is essential for social justice,” Dr Sentas said.

What do you consider to be crucial elements to creating sustainable impact?

“It’s all about people – the quality and commitment of our researchers and teachers, the enthusiasm and involvement of our students, and the engagement of our supporters in the community,” Prof. Dixon said.

“Influencing social change involves complex, multi-faceted process often characterised by the failure of governments to act on evidence and independent advice. This is why our commitments are long-term and aimed at building relationships with constituencies that educate and empower. We are here for the long haul,” Dr Sentas concluded.  

Dawn Lo