Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

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One of the aspects of the women's movement in which you got involved was the protection of women and children. Could you tell me about that in its historical context and how you got involved with it?

Well it started of course with Elsie's, the first women's refuge in Australia, when I acted for the women there, it was pro bono. I [laughs], one of the reasons I was never a very wealthy solicitor because I was paid if the husband paid me. Well, you can imagine how many husbands paid me. Zilch. And I'd go to court for them, represent them for maintenance, to assist them with access if they were prepared to give their husbands some access or none at all. And that was really an eye-opener because although I'd been a solicitor for a little while and although I'd, you know, I'd seen Sydney, I had no idea of the plight of these women when they left home through violence that there'd never been anywhere for them to go and that was why so many of them remained. And I can remember one woman at Glebe that came into my office to give me instructions. She had this black eye and I said, "My goodness me, what happened to you?" And she said, "Oh Harry laid one on on Friday night", and this was Tuesday, and I said, "Oh not you", and she said, "I deserved it, gave him a bit of lip". Now I had never heard anything like that ever in my entire life, so this really was the big learning curve for me and these women were vulnerable. There was nothing really to protect them so then I became interested in doing what I could for them. And sometimes I've found that they weren't doing the right thing by their child because their predicament was such that to survive they could only think about themselves to survive, and of course my interest in children again came to the fore and that was when I had to protect the children, not only from their fathers, sometimes from their mothers, because if this woman was going to return to that violent situation, well she was taking that child back into it also. So, many doors opened for me.

What did you think about the issue of returning to a violent man? I mean once someone had hit a woman, did you feel that there was any hope for them to get back together again?

My first reaction was because of my own home life, "My God. How?", you only read about this, you only see this on film, here it is happening in front of me because I had seen a husband attack his wife in - outside the courtroom. At first I couldn't understand at all, but then I began to understand. They had no alternatives, what were they going to do? Starve? There was nowhere for them to go, no place to hide. And they felt that - a lot of them that they could handle it. Often they didn't. There was no counselling services like we've got now. That took a while for that recognition - that it was needed.

You sometimes said at the time that you thought that it was desirable, if it were at all possible, for the husband and wife to get back together again. Did you think that and do you still think that?

Yes, I do.


Because kids love to be with their mum and dad. That's their natural place. That's where they want to be. You know, it's one reason why I haven't remained in contact with foster children because that was a part - a time in their life - when they were separated from their mum and their dad, and it's a time they want to forget. They don't want to remember and I don't want to remind them just for auld lang syne.

And you feel that if people can possibly stay together, men and women, that they should try?

Yeah, I do and I carry this along into divorce. I no longer believe that it's better for kids, as people use an excuse, we got a divorce because it was better for the kids, I don't believe that's so. I don't believe - I think people get divorced too quickly. I don't think that kids are involved enough in divorce in the Family Court. It's as though Mum and Dad get their divorce, then they start talking about the mortgage payments and the superannuation, and oh yes, let's talk about the kids.

For you, what were the best things that came out of the women's movement?

Well, equality in work. I've said before and, I never suffered from that, but I've seen women who have and I now see it happening, particularly politicians. You know even - the community doesn't have that much faith in women as politicians and I'm hoping that's changing. I mean the women that we do have are strong women and I, I guess they have a lot to offer but I think it's going to take a while to win the males around that women have got as much, and more, to offer as men.

As a woman magistrate, were you always treated - did you always have the same experiences as your male colleagues in respect that was accorded you?

No, none of us did. We all used to have a giggle about it. There - when I was the third one of course - and then later there was a few more, and there was about seven of us - and we'd really, not club together but when we had the annual conference we'd always find time on one of the days to have lunch together to have a giggle at things that were happening. And one of the funniest things happened to Pat O'Shane and to me. It was when Burwood Court was being opened and Pat was going to sit there, and of course I was sitting there as a juvenile magistrate, and all the kerfuffle was going on upstairs and we decided we'd wait downstairs until the Attorney-General arrived and then we'd go upstairs and pay our due respect, etcetera. So we're downstairs where all the cups and saucers and the little cakes and biscuits were, standing there gossiping, and down came one of the Attorney-General's minders. And he rushed up to both of us and said, "The Attorney-General's running late. Please put hold on the tea". And we both looked at him and then he looked at Pat and he said, "Oh, oh, you're a magistrate", to which Pat said, "Indeed I am". Then he looked at me and he said, "Oh so are you". And I said, "Yes, got it right in two". We never saw him again. He went bright red in the face, he disappeared, we never saw him again. He assumed we were the tea ladies because we were standing beside the cups and saucers. So, there you go. He wouldn't have assumed that if a man had been there.

Now turnering - turning to your fostering and that whole area of your life, was that where you got introduced, was it through Jacob that you got interested in Aboriginal affairs or did that pre-date your fostering of Jacob? And what was your feeling about the place of Aborigines and the problems for Aborigines in our society?

I suppose because I've always been a champion of the underdog, and I was very, very proud to find that my great-great-grandmother, Eliza Dunlop, wrote beautiful poems about Aborigines in the 1830s which went back and was published in the Dublin Gazette, so I, I may have inherited this, I don't know. I was very proud when I read that. But always. It came home to me when I was first married and we went to Taree. We were travelling up the coast and we went to the pictures and I went to buy two tickets and the girl gave me upstairs and I said, "Oh I'd prefer to sit down if I may", and she said, "That's for the blacks". I couldn't believe it. There it was slap-bang in my face, 1952, '53 and I wanted to sit down there but John of course said, "Don't. We're only here for a night. Don't cause any scenes, please". So we didn't, we went upstairs. I wanted to apologise to every Aborigine I saw in the interval, I couldn't bear it. Couldn't bear to think that we sat upstairs and they sat down.

And when you fostered Jacob, did that bring you any closer, did you have experiences through that that gave you a deeper understanding of what was going on?

I'm still having them, I'm still having them. It did, but I, before - even before Jacob - I loved representing Aboriginal kids. Those smiles that they give you and that, that shyness, and people don't understand, Aborigines don't look you in the eye because it's respect, out of respect and shyness that goes with it. And when I said this once at a conference, a magistrates' conference, magistrates came up and thanked me, they never knew [laughs]. Yeah, Jacob gave me a deeper understanding about Aborigines, racism. Jacob and I were - I was travelling to Brisbane a couple of months ago and queued up for business class. When it came our turn this woman behind the desk looked at us both and said, "This is first and business class, thank you". And I stood there and looked at her and I said, "Aren't I dressed well enough?" And I didn't move, and she and I eyed each other, and then I think the penny dropped, whoops, I've made a mistake. So we went forward, Jacob carried my bag, put it on the scales, kissed me on the top of the head and said, "I'll pick you up tomorrow", and I said, "Fine darling". When he was out of earshot, I said to this woman, "God may forgive you my girl, but by God I won't". So she kept her head down, of course, didn't apologise. How dare she, you know? This is the year of the Olympics, do you mind? So it's everywhere, and I asked Jay the next day, I said, "I can't stop thinking about that woman yesterday". He said, "No, I've thought about her a lot too". He said, "Do you know what I think the problem was?" And I said, "No, what was it Jay?" He said, "Well, you're 69. How old do you think she was?" And I said, "Oh about 40 I guess". He said, "Yeah, and you've written two books and you're pretty famous". He said, "I think she was jealous of you. She'll never travel first class". And that's Jay's outlook. I wanted to go for her jugular, I react far more than he does.

Has that always been the case? Did he experience any of this when he was a little tot?

Oh gosh, yes, he made a famous statement. It had been raining very heavily and our gutters were just awash and I gave him empty matchboxes to sail down the, down the gutters. And he's out the front doing this and a little girl who'd only moved into the street a month or so earlier, and he, she was of the same age and they'd been playing together and she called out, "My Daddy said you can't come into our house any more". And Jay just put another matchbox in the water and he said, "Why?" And she said, "Because you're black". And Jay said, "Oh your Daddy's mad. I'm an Aborigine, I'm supposed to be black". And you know he wasn't five and I thought, yep, we're doing alright here, we'll be right. [INTERRUPTION]

Did people find it odd that you were the mother, well at one stage, of two Aboriginal children?

Yes, very. I'd be sitting there waiting for them to come, or they'd be sitting there waiting for me to come, and people would be saying to them, you know, "Is your mother picking you up?" And they'd say, "Yes". Or - and the comments that would be made about two Aboriginal kids and then I'd turn up and you could see the looks on their faces. One of the funniest experiences that Jacob and I had was when he applied for his first job. He had been promised an apprenticeship with QANTAS - they were giving out Aboriginal apprenticeships which later they decided not to do - but he had to go through a fairly stiff medical. So we went along to Redfern for this medical and in he went, and I sat inside to read a magazine. He came out, went past me in a white robe and I waved and he waved and on he went. Then he came back. Then he went again and he was gone for about 40 minutes in all. Coming and going, coming and going. So he sat down and he was dressed again and I said, "Gosh, they were thorough Jacob". He said, "Yeah, they said to me, 'Does anyone in your family have diabetes?' And I said, 'Yes, my Mum'", and then he said, "Oh my God". [laughs] He'd forgotten I wasn't his birth mum, and of course they tested him for any sign of diabetes and when there was none they just kept testing, but that's how close we are, I guess. And on another occasion, Mary, Jacob and I were out having dinner on Friday night at a friend's restaurant and they took a little mate with them - and as always happened between main course and dessert - he gave them a loaf of sliced bread that was stale, crusts and things, and they went across the road to feed the ducks in the park. So they're over there, running around, feeding the ducks, and along came a paddy wagon, two young constables in it, they got out. They went up and they said, "What are you kids doing?" And they said, "Feeding the ducks". And they said, "Well, we've had reports of Aboriginal kids stealing the ducks". And they said, "No it wasn't us". And they said, "Was -your mum likes a bit of duck, does she?" And Mary said, "No, Mum doesn't, she likes turkey but she doesn't like duck". And he said, "Oh I bet you had some for Christmas dinner" and Jacob said, "No, Mum booked us into a hotel. We all went to a hotel for dinner". And he said, "Mum booked you into a hotel?" He said, "Yes, my mum's a magistrate". And when Jay was telling me this story, and Mary, they said, "Mum, they ran into, into the police van and they didn't come back". I said, "No, I'll bet they didn't". [laughs]. Same thing's happening with him now. We've got a BMW car and because I was a magistrate you, they can't check on my number, they just draw a blank, and they can't understand why an Aborigine is driving a car, a BMW, that they can't get the number-plate of, so they are always pulling him over. This is a weekly occurrence, sometimes twice a week, and asking him for his details and as to why this is so.

And he said, "Well my mother was a magistrate", and then the penny drops, that that's why they can't get the number-plate. Now I'm not too sure whether it is because they think he's Pat O'Shane's son or mine, but I don't really mind.

Turning now to the whole business of being a judge, you often had to make decisions in situations where there wasn't just the law to guide you, where you actually had to really make a personal judgement. How did you feel about that?

It was a heavy onus. It was a very, very heavy onus and when I became a magistrate I thought I used - if I lost a case or there was a decision that was against what I thought it should be, I agonised over it. Did I do enough? Did I say enough? Was this my fault? And I thought, now if I'm going to do this with every case, I'll go at the knees within a month. The moment I turn that key in my car, that's the end of it. I go home to my children and work's work, and home is home. Now of course sometimes I did take the special ones home with me, but I was able mainly because the kids would say to me, "Mum, that's work". And I also said to myself, "I'm only human, I'm not going to be right 100 per cent of the time. I will make wrong decisions". Thankfully, everyone's got the right of appeal, so if I'm wrong, I hope to God they appeal.

You've described looking at people and thinking they're not guilty or they couldn't have done it or I can see that they're not really reformed. How do you do that? What's that about?

Oh I don't know. I, I think it's something you're born with, it's a sort of intuition. I, I relied a lot on body language, a lot. Also it was important to me where a kid sat in the court, next to a parent or apart from a parent, and where the parent sat. If they sat together, or they sat either side of their child, it was always very telling, because no one was directed to their seats. It was their choice where they sat.

Did the smart kids learn how to manipulate you?

Oh of course, of course they did, so did the lawyers. The kids knew that I barracked for Wests, black and white. Somebody - and I do believe it was some of the lawyers - they had a Wests guernsey and the kid would wear it into court and I would have accepted it except that it was always the scrums, it was a number seven, and I had a sinking suspicion it was the same guernsey. And the kids loved it when I was able to say - especially the Tongans or the Samoans, because they were big boys - and I was able to say to them, "If ever I saw, if I ever I saw a footballer, it's you, you'll make a good second rower". And you'd win them over this way rather than, than being angry, because it was their first time in court, they didn't know what to expect.

Did you ever make a wrong judgement that had very bad consequences?

Yes, yes, I probably made more than one but I don't know about the others. It was a baby, a little girl, born of drug parents, and they had an older child, and the baby was just new, and they wanted me to take it, for them to take the baby home. And I resisted this for up to six weeks, I didn't have any faith that they could look after this baby. But it was the week before Christmas and they came to court equipped with a report from a psychiatrist, all these reports, drug and alcohol, everything else, and against my better judgement, and it was against my better judgement, I said that the baby could go home until the new year when I then would hear the case in full. And the baby was dead the next morning. And I never got over that, I never got over it. Had to be very careful that I didn't go the other way, that I would never allow a child to go home, when there were times a child could go home, so it took a while. An unfortunate repercussion of that was only recently, last year, I was at a, at a meeting of young people in a rural area where the police and, and the council fathers were wanting to have a better deal for their kids. And apropos of absolutely nothing, this woman said to me, "Did you always allow kids - babies - to go home with drug parents?" And I didn't twig at all, and I said, "Well, I always did my best to make sure". She said, "Well, a bloody pity you didn't do it with my grandchild", and it was the grandmother of the little girl. And that just about destroyed me for the rest of that, for the rest of that conference. I was very upset. There was another magistrate there who I liked very much and he came out and he said, "Don't you dare be upset about that. Every one of us, said you know, 'There but for the grace of God go I. Every one of us - we're only human - have made a mistake".

Which of your judgements are you proudest of?

[Laughs] Oh, oh gosh, I don't know.

Is there any, any at all that really sort of stand out? You think, gee, that was pretty damn good to get that right in those circumstances?

Yeah, I, I think one where I allowed a little brother and sister whose mother was terminally ill, to go to live for 12 months with a gay couple. Two men, one a schoolteacher, one a nurse, of good reputation and I knew that they really could help these children. They, their occupations enhanced the emotions that these kids would need to deal with the tragedy that was coming. Their mother was a single parent. And I allowed them to go and I adjourned it and I saw the kids in six weeks time. It was the first time anyone had done it - and I can tell you, there was some opposition to it - but these, the difference in these two children, was just so remarkable that I knew I'd made the right decision and it was a fairly long judgement because I knew that there were going to be prejudices, but I didn't dwell on that word, but just said that in my opinion, da da da da, that it was in the best interests of each child.

In the course of your relationship with the law, you saw some terrible examples of inhumanity. Is there any that shocked even you?

Yes, yep, yep. Two. One was a little two year old boy who had every main bone in his body broken, every main bone at the age of two. And why? Because he got between the de facto and the TV set on grand final day. I couldn't think of the word to describe what I felt about that piece of flesh that was sitting in my court. There was no word I could attach to him. The other one was a tragic case, tragic, of a mother who so desperately wanted a daughter and had her third son, who almost killed this child. He was about eight, nine months old, weighed less than his birth weight and she just kept doing things to him, without killing him, but really and truly slowly killing him because she hadn't wanted him at all. And the husband, well I don't know whether he was in ga-ga land, or where he was, couldn't see that this baby was less than its birth weight, had scars and he'd be bleeding from something, and when I asked him when he was in the witness box, "Didn't you ever think, my God, how could he get bruised like that?" He said, "No, but one of mates said to me one day, 'Mate, do you think your wife really likes that baby?'" He said, "I thought well maybe she doesn't, I don't know". Now that baby when I saw the photos in my chambers, I couldn't stand. All the strength had gone out of my legs. The happy part about that is that that baby did survive, the mother was going to be charged, but the paediatrician who was involved recommended to me - and they were my thoughts too, and to the superior court where she went when she was charged - that the baby be adopted and she have no connection with it ever again, and if that could be done, he would give evidence on her behalf as to the reasons why all of this had occurred. And the people who adopted that child became very dear friends, and still are, and it's one of the few children whose progress I've been able to monitor and see and it's amazing. He is affected, he will always be affected by the first ten months of his life, but he's a beautiful boy. They were the two of the worst. I mean there was - another poor little fellow who said to me, "I don't want to go home if, if my stepmum is going to be there", and I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because I poo my pants and she puts it in the blue bowl and makes me eat it and I hate it". She sat in court this girl, I couldn't - again, how do you describe these people? How do you describe them?

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