Best of 2010: To Kill A Mockingbird and asylum seeker justice

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To Kill A Mockingbird

First published in Eureka Street on 9 July 2010.

In 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

I enjoyed the article as i have read and re read and watched and re watched 'to kill a mockingbird'. It is a very hard road taking on the 'other' which i say from frontline experience but it is very satisfying when one is blessed with a 'win', at any level. I believe that the 'fighters' and the 'plodders' work hand in hand for the same outcome and one without the other does not really gel with me. They have the same passion just work toward it differently.

rhonda | 13 January 2011  

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