To Kill A Mockingbird and asylum seeker justice


To Kill A MockingbirdIn July 1960, Harper Lee had her first book published: To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer prize. The movie version in 1962 won an Academy Award for Gregory Peck. Lee did not write another book and maintains a low profile, unlike her book which has not been out of print in 50 years and features in many school English classes.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird over 30 years ago at school. I remember enjoying a book about young children learning about life from their father, a lawyer. I could feel some affinity with Jem and Scout, as I also had a father who was a lawyer. I also remember the courtroom drama of the trial of Tom Robinson.

These days when I reread this great book I find myself more interested in the character of Atticus, the lawyer. When I was a young law graduate, I saw Atticus as a noble lawyer. Now, I see him more as a 'contemporary', as I am approaching 50 years as he was in the book.

The book is set in 1935, in Alabama, during the Depression. It was published in 1960 at a time when the civil rights movement was building. Fifty years later its themes of justice, growing up and respecting the 'other' are as fresh as ever. While I remember seeing Atticus as a 'model' for good lawyers many years ago, I now see him as a man who does his best to work for justice in a society that is against him. 

He is not a great human rights advocate. He does not go out championing the rights of oppressed minorities or taking the case to the media. His approach is to do the best for his client, despite popular opposition to respecting the rule of law for Black Americans as for White Americans. Atticus works to win the case within the system, and hopes that thereby the system would gradually reform.

The appeal of Atticus is that he is realistic. At one point he talks of his motivation: 'Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro come up, is something I don't pretend to understand.'

Many lawyers will understand the challenges he faces in working for the unpopular 'other'. Just replace 'Negro' with asylum seeker, boat person, Muslim women in burqas, or any other who does not share the populist view.

Some believe you need to fight hard in the open for human rights, challenging abuses and seeking reform at every opportunity. Others try to live and work in a way that welcomes the 'other' and challenges the abuses of rights through the system. Neither approach is always going to win, but the real skill for advocates is recognising when to take a case into the public arena, and when to grind your way through the system like Atticus.

When Tom Robinson was found guilty, Jem could not believe it. However Jem was yet to learn how much populist opinion was against Tom simply because of his colour. Atticus knew there was a long and drawn out fight ahead through the appeal courts but sadly Tom could not take the strain of waiting for justice.

I have seen the same thing happen with asylum seekers. Cases may be refused or processing stops because of political influence and the view that it is now 'safer' in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or Iraq. You go on to review and hope for the best, but sometimes clients cannot take the strain of uncertainty, or in some cases detention.

Many suffered under the previous 45-day rule regarding work permission, or the lingering limbo of the TPV. Like Tom, they might seek their own way to escape this uncertainty.

Prime Minister Gillard's speech this week on immigration and refugees was like a 'curate's egg': good in parts. The facts were given, such as that asylum seekers make up only 1.5 per cent of the total migration program, and there was some analysis of why people flee. Then, the 'Timor Plan' was announced.

All the Opposition had to offer was greater restrictions and punishment of asylum seekers.

Hopefully To Kill A Mockingbird's anniversary will, to paraphrase Atticus, give us a chance to wonder why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving an asylum seeker comes up.

Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and is one of Australia's top immigration lawyers as recognised the Australian Financial Review Best Lawyers survey in 2009 and 2010.

Topic tags: To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, Jem, Scout, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, civil rights, asylum



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Existing comments

Well it comes in the category of 'not-racist-but', doesn't it? eg Where is the public outcry about the death of Mr Ward in WA being no-one's fault?
Pauline Small | 09 July 2010

Thank you for this Kerry. I am teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in year 11 in term 3 and I'll give this article to my class.

mary ellen | 09 July 2010

Right on Pauline
It is so easy to forget the injustice in our own backyard
The current brouhaha in Qld is another issue which defies belief

GAJ | 09 July 2010

"The reasonable man of the law."
Does he exist? This was the title of an essay written by a Jesuit lawyer which I read in 1958. I've never forgotten his conclusion.
Yes, in the mind of a reasonable judge.
But in the reality of life outside the court every offence against the law is to some extent unreasonable.

So why do reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving ... (substitute any perceived threat to one's selfish interests)? We are all selfish to some extent and that selfishness is encouraged or discouraged by our upbringing and environment. Jesuit schools try to produce "men for others".
It is a lifelong struggle against selfishness.
Uncle Pat | 09 July 2010

I like to sing "Amazing Grace" to remind myself that I must pray the question "Am I my brother's keeper?" Great writers have discussed this for eons.
Ray O'Donoghue | 09 July 2010

Well said, Kerry.

You are part of the 1% that 99% of other lawyers give a bad name.
Bob GROVES | 09 July 2010

It is ironic, surely, that people like the Hazaras are the subject of xenophobia within Afghanistan itself and when they risk their lives and life savings to escape torture and persecution they meet another round of xenophobia. It is interesting that the meaning of xenophobia is the unreasonable fear or aversion to guests or strangers. In a stable country blessed with resources and support systems, which received a very limited number of knocks on the door, you would think the hand of hospitality might be extended. Kerry's insightful recall of Atticus Finch's role is a timely reminder as the race to the bottom continues over coming months.
Gerard Walsh | 09 July 2010

It's even more deranged when we note the number of Afghans and Iraqis already here who have never been a bother to anyone.

Gillard is a fool and always was - her timing and working were atrocious.

Sort of alone these lines "they flee persecution, prison, torture, they are very few" "but we must expect them to be orderly somewhere over there".
Marilyn | 09 July 2010

Yes, the women who want to wear burqas (presumably in Western societies) is a favorite on Eureka Street. I would have more respect for this online publication, if it championed the cause of women in Muslim lands who don't want to wear the burka.

How about some Arab Atticus Finch taking up the cudgels against for those Muslim women who don't feel inclined to wear a burka or a hijab. How free are they to wear what they want in "traditional" Islamic societies?

I sometimes get the impression that the contributors to Eureka Street think that only white Westerners are capable of xenophobia and bigotry. Just to prove me wrong, why not have an article that examines the centuries old hatred between the Sunnis and the Shia. This would help explain Hazaris flee persecution in Afghanistan.

We should not spare our good fortune and prosperity to those who need it. We should also not spare a sharp rebuke and challenge to those who fail to live a life of charity, whether it be ourselves or our brothers and sisters in other countries.
Patrick James | 09 July 2010

Gerard Walsh,you are obviously mistaken. The Hazaras do not experience any xenophobia in Afghanistan. We all know that the only place where xenophobes, bigots and racists reside is Australia!

Then again maybe John Howard's dog whistle made it all the way to the subcontinent.
John Ryan | 11 July 2010

Thanks for that, Kerry. A good article. I suppose the paradox for lawyers is that their strength is, by definition, working within "the system". A lawyer can climb the barricades - but then, so can a priest, an accountant, a chef. It is the lawyer's particular gift and training to use the tools of the system itself - even though they may sometimes need to protest or do any of the things any other person can.
Justin Glyn | 11 July 2010


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