Thursday, May 18, 2006

Vale John Marsden, lawyer & libertarian

Some 14 centuries ago, an Arab man regarded by millions as a Prophet of God sat amongst his followers. A funeral procession passed, the mourners having completed the service at the synagogue. Immediately upon seeing them, the Arab gentleman stood up and remained standing until they were out of view.

“Why do you stand up, Prophet of God? This man did not believe in your prophethood,” said one of the followers.

“I am standing to honour a humbled human soul about to meet its Creator,” responded the man to his followers.

For myself and for lawyers across Australia, now is an opportune time to stand up for deceased colleague. Whether we agreed or disagreed with his views on legal and social issues, we honour John Marsden as a humbled human soul who made a mark on the legal community and the broader Australian community.

I can't claim to have known Mr Marsden all that well. I only met him on a few occasions. One such occasion was during a job interview in 1997 at his home in Denham Court on the outskirts of Sydney. It was a Saturday morning, and I was running late.

I rang the doorbell. I was nervous, holding my resume and wearing a freshly pressed suit and polished shoes. Mr Marsden opened the door and presented himself, barefoot and clothed in shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Prozac Nation”. He greeted me with: “G’day, mate. Got lost, did yah?”

Mr Marsden led me to his large dining table covered with files and papers. I couldn’t help but note a large number of legal aid forms. Mr Marsden followed my gaze, and observed: “Mate, haven’t you ever done legal aid work? That’s where the real law is practised.”

John Marsden graduated in law from Sydney University in 1966. He immediately started his own legal practice in Campbelltown, on the outskirts of south western Sydney.

Marsden’s involvement in public life has been extensive. He served as President of the NSW Law Society and as both NSW and National Presidents of the Council for Civil Liberties. He has served on numerous other social, sporting and government boards, devoting time to issues as wide-ranging as school and higher education, the arts, rugby league, swimming, drug rehabilitation, HIV discrimination and policing.

Marsden also fought Australia’s longest running defamation trial. His openness about his sexuality was seen by many as the basis for accusations of unlawful sexual behaviour being aired on the Seven Network. The litigation took a toll on both Marsden’s finances and his health.

To mark his passing, the Sydney Morning Herald website recently posted a small gallery of photographs of Mr Marsden. The photograph I found most troubling was one showing a visibly disturbed Marsden sitting in the front passenger seat of his car staring outside a broken window. His driver had just informed him that the window had been smashed by a person screaming ‘pedophile’.

Marsden’s face reminded me of the faces of leaders of mosques, Arab churches and Sikh temples coming to terms with broken windows and graffiti evidencing hatred and venom poured on them in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The targets of prejudice may vary, but the sentiment is the same.

We know that to suggest all gay men are pedophile is absurd. As is suggesting all Muslims, Arabs and Middle Easterners (and those whose appearance resembles them) are terrorists. Yet both prejudices are common and active in the broader community. John Marsden’s face staring out of his broken window reinforced in my mind how troubling it can be to suffer vilification and violence for being deemed a criminal because of one’s public embrace of certain lifestyle choices.

Marsden’s clientele came from all classes and sectors of society, from the homeless to major insurers and financial institutions. He rarely refused legal aid work which many lawyers dismissed as being too much trouble for too little money. He was known to be a passionate defender of human rights and believed the law was designed to protect the rights of each individual, whether a convicted Sydney murderer or a deposed Iraqi dictator.

In 1994, Marsden was the recipient of an A.M. in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to Law and the Community. He had friends in places high and low across the community. Among his former business partners is former NSW Liberal Premier and former Finance Minister in the Howard Government, John Fahey. Yet Marsden’s contacts and involvements transcended the political divide.

John Marsden is a household name in legal and political circles and across the broader community. Even his enemies and critics dare not discount the contribution he made to public life.

Marsden’s many public stands provided hope to a host of otherwise marginalised Australians. Marsden fought prejudice in all its forms. He was a true libertarian who believed a lawyer’s primary professional responsibility was to defend the individual against the excesses and intricacies of law enforcement, government and bureaucracy.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006