A former florist who was widowed with seven children in the middle of her Southern Cross University (SCU) law course, has been named the 2016 National Indigenous Law Student of the Year
The Attorney-General’s Department has announced the award will go to Johanna Byrne, who overcame personal tragedy to find solace and inspiration in her degree.
Ms Byrne was left a single mother after the sudden death of her husband in 2014, less than 12 months into her Bachelor of Laws degree at SCU.
Soon after, Johanna relocated from Coffs Harbour to Perth for a fresh start, while continuing her studies online.
‘Despite this adversity, I have managed to remain focused and succeed with my studies while continuing to bring up my children, albeit now on my own,’ she said.
‘While it has not been easy, my passion to become a criminal lawyer and help disadvantaged people has kept me focused.’
Johanna will receive her qualification at the Southern Cross University graduation ceremony in March.
‘I was a florist for 16 years. While this seems like it would provide no background that would help with a career in law, it has given me emotional intelligence,’ said Johanna.
‘Law is a people profession, much like floristry, as both deal with clients who are emotionally vulnerable.’
After working at Legal Aid Western Australia in the Appeals Department for more than a year, Johanna will start a graduate role with top Perth legal firm Lavan Legal in February.
Johanna, who admits to being naturally shy, made networking a priority when she moved to Perth. Her mentor is Peter Quinlan SC, the Solicitor-General of Western Australia.
‘Through networking, I was introduced to Peter who was then head of the WA Bar Association. I’m indebted to him. He’s given me good advice. Peter is a good friend to have on my side,’ she said.
The annual National Indigenous Law Awards (NILA), awarded by the federal Attorney-General’s Department, recognise the achievements of Indigenous Australians who improve justice outcomes for Indigenous Australians.
Johanna said the NILA judges were impressed by her idea for a practical legal clinic at Southern Cross University. Her proposal is for the School of Law and Justice to establish an interdisciplinary clinic involving law students working alongside students from other disciplines – such as business or psychology – to provide advice to the Indigenous community.
‘The clinic will be an opportunity for students to gain firsthand practical experience, giving them an edge when they are ready to enter into practice. At the same time it will enable Indigenous people to receive legal and other advice they may need.’
The Practical Legal Clinic is currently being developed by the School of Law and Justice.
Johanna’s Honours research thesis, ‘The under-utilisation of Section 32 of the Mental Health Forensic Provisions Act 1990 (NSW)’, was inspired by an experience close to home.
When her eldest son, who has an intellectual disability, got into trouble with the law, Johanna, then working as a florist, did all the legwork in preparing a Section 32 application to get him diverted from the criminal system towards help and treatment.
‘There are few resources and little interest in doing Section 32s in NSW which is why I was driven to do it myself to ensure my son stayed out of jail,’ Johanna said.
‘There’s a large gap in the understanding of both lawyers and the courts about people who have an intellectual disability and the effects the process can have on them.
‘We ended up winning the case and when my lawyer said ‘I think you’re wasting your time as a florist’ that planted the seed.
‘I enrolled in the degree at Southern Cross University because the law school is very social justice orientated.’
Johanna has been an active member of the university student community and in the School of Law and Justice. She is an elected student representative of the University Academic Board and a former Law Student Committee member. She is also a Student Mentor, helping first-year students adjust to tertiary life and study.
Last year Johanna was a recipient of the Bruce Miles Foundation scholarship, which provides Indigenous law students with textbooks for their studies.
‘The scholarship helped me with much-needed textbooks, which in the past I have been unable to afford at times for certain units I was studying,’ she said.
‘The scholarship is a way of helping Indigenous students through law school where at present the numbers who do graduate are very low.’
Johanna’s long-term goal is to be a barrister.
‘There are currently not enough Indigenous barristers,’ she said. ‘By going to the Bar I feel I can effectively advocate on behalf of those who are disadvantaged in the community – the Indigenous, the intellectually disabled and the poor – through pro-bono work. A lot of these people cannot afford barristers.’