Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

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What was it about the law that drew you to it in the first place? When you actually started working and discovered, in that solicitor's office, what the law was all about, could you say what it was that really drew you?

I think it was the judgements. In, in our office it all looked so simple. We were acting for somebody, so of course they were innocent, or of course they should be compensated, whatever. And maybe they were found guilty, maybe they weren't compensated, and when I read the reasons why and the judgements, I just wondered at the wisdom of these people. I loved every aspect of it. I loved the wigs, the gowns, the repartee between, between the barristers and solicitors.

The theatre of it, the drama of it.

Oh yes. All of that. I used to find it so exciting if I had to deliver a document to the court to give to a barrister. Oh, it was just wonderful.

So when you actually started to study law, how did you do that? Did you do that through Solicitors' Admission Board, or through a law degree, or how did you do it...?

Through the Solicitors' Admission Board. I went to university two nights a week for lectures and I still of course had my shorthand skills, so I took down all my notes in shorthand. Then I came home and I transcribed them on to my typewriter. Then I had my dinner and then I studied for a little while and then I went to bed, and I used to get up at two-thirty am and study till five. And then go to work the next morning. People used to say to me, when it was all over, that there were times I was almost green with tiredness. I think they were right.

But did you waiver during that time? Did you..

No. No, no. And I started to study with two friends, and I - I don't mean - I left them behind - I don't mean to boast. I just know I needed that degree. And I just kept going.

So did you end up doing the law degree, or did you do the Solicitors' Admission Board exams?

No, no I just did SAB.

And during this period that you were a student, what age did you start doing the Leaving Certificate and when did you finish?

I did my Leaving Certificate when I was 34. And I studied, started law at 35. And I had my certificate at 39.

And what was Louise doing during this period?

Spending a lot of time with her dad. Because - like all of the weekends she would spend - because there was animosity between us, there - that was no problem at all. And Louise and I shared the same bedroom. And I used to spend time sitting with her at night before she went to sleep, talking to her. And I did delay actually for a couple of years, until I believed - she was nine when I started - that she was old enough then to cope with my not being in attendance all the time.

How did you go about studying? I mean what was your approach to it? Could you pass on any advice to other people who take on study at that stage? How did you organise yourself?

Well, I had to put all my social life on hold. There was no way I could have a social life and study. And I think one of the most difficult things is, it's harder to retain. You may understand better, but it's harder to retain just some of the quotes that required - you were required, you know. Well my advice is, put, forget social life for the next four years. You might get Christmas and Easter in if you're lucky. And nothing replaces hard work.

Did it help you in your legal studies that you were actually working in the law office during the day?

No, not really. It did for subjects like conveyancing, but I didn't do any constitutional law at Burwood. And oh well, divorce, that helped me. Because I understood it. I didn't, there were no mysteries there with any of the terminology, etcetera.

What did your boss in the Burwood office think about you going off to qualify as a lawyer?

He was my mentor. If it hadn't been for him I wouldn't have got it. He, he spent hours with me, coaching me. He was wonderful.

Why do you think he believed in you like that?

Because we had a 13 year relationship.

And he had a suspicion of what you were capable of?

Yeah. I think it was more than a suspicion. Yes.

So, could you describe how you felt when you finally got there, to this goal that had been reached with such difficulty?

I'll never forget the day that I went to the Supreme Court with my father, and Louise, in her school uniform, to receive my Certificate to Practice. It was just the wonderful day, wonderful. Wonderful day. And then I did something which you can no longer do. The next week I looked around for and found an area where I thought I'd like to open my own practice. You see, you can't do that any more.

You would now have to go into some established practice?

Yes. Yes. I've finished, got my my law degree in the November, and the day after the long weekend in January, I opened my door for business, in a tiny little office in Glebe.

Did you have any promise of work or anything?

None. None. The first January I earned - and February - I earned three dollars for witnessing a 5A lease. I had a thousand dollars in the bank, I had a daughter at an expensive private school. And I thought I'll give it six months, and if it doesn't work, well then it doesn't work. So that was when I ran for a bookie to help a bit more. I made more money doing that than practising law.

What do you do as a bookie's runner?

You - he offloads his big bets and you put them, put them on with another bookmaker.

So where did you do this?

Oh, all over. Dapto, Richmond, Wentworth Park.

How did you get on to this lurk?

Oh, just a client. I was very good at it. I was very quick. I was very - and I had wigs. Because once the bookies got to know you, you were no use to him. You had - because they knew what you were doing then. You had to be offloading without them knowing. I knew the name of every dog that was running around the tracks.

Mrs Solicitor, is this quite legal what you were doing?

No, no. I did not tell anybody what I was doing. Oh, it was legal. It was legal, there was nothing illegal, but it was just totally inappropriate for a solicitor to be seen at a dog track running for a bookie, especially one in private practice.

But it did pay the rent.

It sure did.

So, just describe what you did when you actually found this office and hung up your shingle. I mean give us a picture of what it was like for this young woman to be doing this.

I went along to Jones Lang Wootton at Edgecliff, because I had seen advertised a shop for ten dollars a week in Glebe. I went along - I always seemed to have kids with me - I went along with Louise who was then fourteen, and two of her school mates, and I think a local - I know I had four, three or four kids with me. And I wasn't very dressed up, but there I was in Edgecliff and I said, "You have an office advertised", and well she wasn't impressed, let me say. And she said, "Well what were you thinking of having in this shop?" And I said, "Oh, I'm a solicitor, I was thinking of running a legal office". And she [laughs] - her attitude changed, let's say. And I got better service, too. And so I signed a lease, ten dollars a week for a year, and my father had an old friend who was a sign-writer, and he wrote the sign for me. And my - one of my best friends, very good with a sewing machine, she made me curtains to hang in the big window. And there I sat in this shoe box, with a typewriter, a desk and no clients...

And to begin with, nothing to do.

That was all. Except the crossword.

So, so what happened? How did, how did the clients come? How did they discover you?

Oh, it was magic how the clients came, just magic. Next door to me was an estate agent with lots of promises, you know, "I'll do this, I'll do that". So we got to really hard times, and I thought I'll give it another month. All I'm doing is witnessing 5A leases and not much more. A little bit of court work, but nothing much. And it was June, and I remember it because it was my birthday. And I came back from lunch with some friends, and there was a man sitting in my office and I'd never seen him before, and I was very interested and thinking here comes a client. And he said what his name was, he'd lived in Glebe all his life and that a distributor was going through Glebe area. And the Main Roads Department were buying all of the houses. And he said, "They want us to use their solicitor, but we said" - and he represented about eight residents - "we have our own solicitor in Glebe". Now I never realised that they'd even seen me there. So I then acted for all of these people, eight people, they all, the houses were old system which meant a fortune in fees, conveyancing fees. And of course they all purchased, because they moved somewhere else. And that was when I financially was established. [INTERRUPTION]

What were your early clients like?

Magic. They were the salt of the earth Glebe-ites. It was before it got yuppie. And most of them worked on the railways or the wharves. And so many of these people lived in housing commission there and they really couldn't afford to properly pay a solicitor. So they were always very grateful if you went to court for them or did something legal, witnessed something for them. And they'd pay you with a cake or with scones or a pound of peas and beans. And they'd pop in and tell me where the bargains were. They were wonderful people.

When did you discover children's law?

Oh, I'd done some when I worked as a managing law clerk, and became very interested in it then. But that was pre free representation for children. So we didn't do that much. But I found that they were unique really, the way the law - see the criminal law applies. There's no special criminal law for children. So the adult law applied, and I saw a lot of injustice in that. A lot was expected of children to act like an adult, or they were guilty of a crime. And then when I was in Glebe, I was asked - because the kids got into so much trouble in Glebe and the police were pretty hard on them - I was, I went to Albion Street, that was our only court then. Yasmar but that was for younger kids. And I really then that here were kids who needed representation and never had it. The kids whose parents were well off, they could afford representation. So when the Law Society communicated with me and said that it was proposed that free legal aid for children was to be introduced, I was in it from the word go. That was on the 10th of May, 1973.

And that was the start of Legal Aid?

Absolutely, for children. So that every child, from the moment they're born, till they turn 18, is entitled to free legal representation.

Does that mean that they get the same level of representation as people who can afford it?

It did. And often it meant they got more. Because no one was constrained by fees. The parents weren't. I mean they didn't hesitate to bring the child in. And because the parents weren't paying us, we were able to reach the children. Whereas if the parent was paying you they felt they had a right to sit in on the interviews. And your kids - the kids would never open up to you. So it was, it was good that you could say when you'd take a child into the office, you could ask the parents to wait outside.

Now when you were getting established in Glebe, you hadn't specialised at that stage in children's work. How did, how did that develop? How did it come that you eventually ended up a specialist lawyer for children?

Because it was what I wanted to do. There was no other aspect of the law that satisfied me like this. I, I couldn't give you a toss about conveyancing or probate. And so I employed a solicitor and they were her expertise. And so I concentrated on kids. And of course, from that I ventured into family law. But I soon got out of that too.

Why did you get out of family law?

I hated it.


Oh, the practitioners turned me off for starters. Very closed shop. Very. And I remember I was at Parramatta Court and the practitioners there - I mean that was - they were there every day at Parramatta. And you'd walk into the solicitors' room, they'd have their, almost their breakfast some of them, with the Herald spread out right across the table as they sat there and read the Herald. No one would move over to give you a chair to sit on. Oh it was just awful, I hated the whole thing. There was no camaraderie at all. And so the first thing I did I decided I wouldn't go to Parramatta, I'd go into town, I did. And then I just had a couple of cases where I saw these incredible prejudices of these judges, incredible prejudice against fathers, that I thought I'm not practising in this jurisdiction any more. They can keep this, there's - oh, I felt so sorry for these people.

Were these cases that you'd acted for the fathers?

Yes, yes. And I will never forget the case with this man who, who'd really been wronged by his wife. And she left with a neighbour and left him with four little children. And he'd worked for seventeen or nineteen years in the one job, never had a day's illness, da da da da, right? He gave his job up to look after his children. He didn't farm them out. He didn't seek help. She came back a year later and said, "Right, I'm established now, I'll take the kids". And this judge gave this woman not only the kids, but this man had to be out of the house within 24 hours with all of his belongings. And he was sitting in the gutter when I came out, crying. I sat - I didn't cry, but I sat in the gutter with him, and shook my head and said, "I don't understand. I just do not understand". Now this judge was noted for his prejudice against fathers, well noted. And I asked - said to another solicitor that was there, "Was it me? Did I cause this?" He said, "No, could have told you before you went in". And at that stage you could change the list a little bit and get before another judge. I don't think you can do that any more and that's what I should have done.

But after you decided you didn't like family law, you nevertheless found that working with children was really, really satisfying for you. Can you tell me why?

The resilience of kids astounded me constantly. They're so brave. They're so loyal. More loyal to parents than parents are to them, let me tell you. They never dob their parents in. Parents can't dob them in fast enough, by saying, "You know, I never knew he was doing this, I've done everything that I could ever do for him in my life, look how he repays me by doing this". They've got a great sense of humour. And they bounce back. They really - and they don't hate you, they don't hate you when you've got to be firm with them and when, as a magistrate they'd have to go inside. They knew it. They knew they'd had every chance. And I, I remember going to Kariong which is very tight security and lots of buzzers and everything else, and all this electronic nonsense, and going in. And all these kids that were there that at some stage had come through my court. I hadn't sent them all there, but they'd call out "G'day, Barb". And it just made me feel good. I know made one other juvenile magistrate very angry that I allowed children to call me Barb, but that was amongst the nice things they called me. They called me a lot of things that weren't that nice.

Like what?

I don't think you really want me to say. [laughs] It'd certainly put a question mark over my mother and father being married, and - yes.

When you were still a solicitor, can you recall maybe the first case that you did, or one of the very early cases that you did as a solicitor in that Children's Court?

In the Children's - I can remember the first one I did, but it wasn't in the Children's Court. I couldn't even tell you what my name was I was so frightened. I didn't know if I acted for the defendant or the plaintiff I was shaking so much. The first case that I did in the children's court was for a local family who had five boys and one sister. And they were notorious. They were always in trouble. They hated the local police and the local police hated them. And they were always appearing in Albion Street. And in fact I, you know, I should have paid them because they helped me to hone my skills on my feet in court, actually. Because I can't think of a charge that I didn't appear for them on. Yeah.

How did they find you?

Well I was on the corner of Glebe Point Road and Parramatta Road. And when they got off the bus they had to past my office. And I remember the first time they came into my office, the two boys, the two middle boys. And they were larrikins, let me tell you. And I said, "Right, I will appear for you, and you will pay me, and I know you can't pay me know, but you will. And I drive that old blue Cortina, okay, that's parked round the corner. I want to be able to park that Cortina anywhere in this area - Newtown, Redfern - and I don't want it touched. Because I don't always remember to lock the doors. Do you understand?" They told all their mates. I could park my car anywhere and it was never touched.

Did you get them off?

Not always. Mainly. If I didn't, you know, the sister who was the one who paid, she'd, she'd say to me, "It's okay, Barb, it's okay". Great family. There's only I think only two of them still alive. One was killed in a drive-by shoot, the sister died of a drug overdose, and I was sitting as a magistrate and both their children at different times had appeared before me. So it goes on, generation after generation.

What was the Albion Street Children's Court like?

Dickensian. And I don't know why, it always seemed to rain. It mightn't rain anywhere else in Sydney, but it seemed to rain in Albion Street. It was a structure added to this awful building. And it was wooden. The stairs were wooden, I don't know how they didn't all collapse. And we would sit - solicitors and clients alike - crammed into this long verandah, closed in verandah, and the magistrate who sat there had sat in Albion Street for 17 years. He knew their grandparents. He knew every kid.

At this time that you were going there as a solicitor, did you feel that the way the court worked and the way the system worked, was right for children?


What were your problems with it?

The whole system was wrong.

You saw that then?

Oh, yes. The whole system was wrong. Absolutely. It was stamped. They came in like sausages, had a stamp put on their papers, and out they went. It was like that. No one was talking to them. No one - they had reports I know, but the kids didn't know what was in the reports. And the magistrates didn't know what that kid was like. The kids never spoke. They weren't invited to speak. And neither really were the solicitors. Only what the magistrate would allow them to say. Yeah, I didn't like it at all. Not at all.

So how was the case heard then? I mean how did it work?

Your name - the child's name was called by a police constable. The police constable would say to the kid off a clipboard "You represented?" and the kid would say yes or no. Wasn't too sure what that meant. In we'd go. And you'd sit on a chair, on a wooden chair, with your client beside you. And the magistrate would just say "You stole a motor vehicle. This is the second time you've done it. Told you what would happen next time. Do you want to say anything, Mrs Holborow?" and I'd start to say "Well, Your Worship, Gary was, has lived in Glebe..." "Oh, I know all that. He's been before me, is there anything new you want to tell me from when he was here last time?" It was just awful. I wanted change. Right from the word go I wanted to change. I didn't think they were getting a good deal.

What form did you think the change should take then, back then, when you were still a solicitor watching. What did you think needed to happen?

That they should get the same fair deal as an adult. They were entitled to that. And they should be listened to. And not only listened to, but heard. Because if you listen to kids, you'll hear, you'll hear the truth. Parents don't always, the kid will. I've had a four year old tell me the truth.

How long were you a solicitor?

Twelve and a half years.

And during that time, when you were frustrated by the system, how did you deal with that?

I spoke on every radio, every TV station, I was in the newspapers. I wanted people to know.

While you were still a solicitor?

While I was still a solicitor, yes. Wasn't for self glory. Things had to change. They weren't good enough. Yeah.

Apart from that first case of the, of the notorious family, were there any other cases that really stand out in your memory as exceptionally interesting cases or cases that illustrated some of your problems from that period?

There were many. There really with - dealing with every aspect of law. I remember a girl who was 17 who used to baby-sit this little fella. And the mother was hopeless. The mother I think was 18 or 19 herself, but she'd go off and she'd drink. And this 17 year old - and they, they came from Redfern, and it was a pretty poor part of Redfern. They weren't Aboriginal. And this girl, the baby-sitter, decided that she'd had enough of this mother, and she took the baby, and took her to a relation's place in Newcastle. Of course, they said she'd kidnapped her. But I understood why she did it. The authorities should have done it earlier. Anyway, got her off and that was the first time I was written up as a - with a win as a solicitor. That was pretty important. That made Mum and Dad pretty proud. That was one of the case - but there were many. And, and I learnt to get a bit cheeky, not to just stand up represent - but to have a go at the prosecutor. And I remember a girl who was found sleeping in Canterbury Racecourse in the stables there. And she was exposed - the charge was exposed to immoral danger. And I said, "Well Your Worship unless my friend can show Your Worship that these horses were immoral and had immoral intentions, surely his accusations must fail". And this fella - everybody laughed - he was furious with me this fellow, because he was a police prosecutor, he hadn't studied law. But it's different now. I'm going right back. And he was so angry with me that everybody laughed. And he did - I paid for that I can tell you. Every time he got a chance he made me pay for it.

How did you get on with the police?

Really well. I had nothing to prove. I never had any trouble being female. I was the only female in my year at law, at the university, I was the only female in that year. And I had no trouble. I, I didn't go along acting because I'm female of being helpless, "Oh please help me, please help me big Mr Policeman", or going in there punching out lights because I was a female and I'm as good as you. That didn't happen. I just went in and was myself.

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