Former Mount Scopus captain now president of the Law Institute of Victoria

November 25, 2020 by Henry Benjamin
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Tania Wolff was the school captain at Melbourne’s Mount Scopus in 1988 and last week she was endorsed as president of the Law Institute of Victoria.

Tania Wolff

The one year term of the presidency starts on January 1, 2021.

J-Wire asked criminal lawyer Tania to tell us about herself.

JW: When did you decide to criminal law was for you?

TW: My journey in law was circuitous. I did my Articles and a year after that at Arnold Bloch Leibler (now ABL) which is a commercial law firm.  I then failed abysmally after a short stint at recruitment before working as a sessional law lecturer and then transitioned to work as in house counsel in Australia and later overseas. I worked for a global engineering and construction company. It was only after having my son and returning back home to Melbourne after several years in Asia that I decided to try my hand at criminal law, having long been drawn to its drama and essential human character when I was originally decided to study law. I was lucky that David Grace QC gave me the opportunity to work with him at that time.

JW: Were there any deciding factors?

TW:  I love advocacy and the tension and uncertainty of court appearance work. Even now, having done many pleas in the Magistrates’ Court, I still feel nervous every time I get to my feet. It doesn’t matter how apparently uncontroversial the hearing may be, one can never be sure of the bench or the outcome and I always have butterflies in my stomach.

My own legal practice is unusual. I run a pro bono legal service in a mental health and addiction clinic called First Step and my clients are among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the community. There is also nothing more satisfying than being able to articulate to a court why the circumstances of my clients, and the struggles and hurdles they have had to overcome in life, deserve compassionate consideration.  In a world where we are valued largely by what we produce and consume, my clients have little value and rarely any voice. It is humbling and the greatest privilege in my life to be able to be that voice for them when I can and to do what I can to help, what may be an unsympathetic bench, see their essential humanity.

JW: Have you held other positions within the LIV?

TW:  Yes, I have been on the Board since 1 January 2015 and have been on the executive of the Board for two years.

Since 2015 I have also been on the Executive of the Criminal Law Section and the Specialisation Board. I have chaired the LIV’s Governance Working Group for the past two years and have been on the Finance and Risk Committee this year.

JW: Have there ever been other women in the role? Or a Jewish president?

TW:  The Law Institute of Victoria has been around for 161 years. I think there may have been a Jewish President in 1965 (Sir Edward Cohen) but I am not sure if there has been more.  I am relatively confident I am the first Jewish female in the role but I don’t profess to be certain about that either.

JW:  Tell us about your family life

TW: I have raised my son as a single parent. The pride and joy of my life is my now 14-year-old son Avi who is in Year 8 at King David. He astounds me every day with his intelligence, thirst for knowledge and learning and sense of humour. He is a gorgeous young man and also my greatest teacher. He also challenges me every day, especially now as he is a fully-fledged teenager!

JW: Did you grow up in a legal family?

TW: My brother, Alex, is a Disputes Partner and Managing Partner at Baker and McKenzie. He was always the “real lawyer” in the family while my career has been less conventional.

JW:  Mental health and the Law.  Is there much to do in improving the way mental health is dealt with by the courts?

TW:  How long do you have?! There is so much we could be doing better.

Anyone who spends even a few minutes in the Magistrates Court, which hears more than 90% of criminal cases in Victoria, will immediately get the picture of who gets caught up in the courts and the criminal justice system. There have been lots of studies on this, including the Ombudsman, Deborah Glass’ report on prisons in 2015, but it’s essentially the poor, the disadvantaged, those that didn’t finish high school, who have mental illness, addiction, were otherwise traumatised or abused in their childhoods or lives, are homeless and so on. Also, even though they make up less than 2% of our general population, nearly a third of our prison population is made up of our first nation’s people, which is a national shame in my view.

So, in answer to your question, yes. Very much so. We need to start to provide appropriate resources and responses in our community to assist those that are the most vulnerable, so that we stop criminalising and penalising poverty, mental ill-health, addiction and disadvantage. If we don’t, it will only get worse and those that need help the most, will keep falling through the cracks, and ending up in our prisons and none of us will feel safer. If there’s one thing I think we have all learned over this bizarre COVID-19 year, it’s that we are all inextricably interconnected. What someone in Hoppers Crossing who has no objective connection to us, may do or not do, can affect us all very directly and in a very significant way. So, if not from altruistic impulses, then simply to protect and preserve and nurture the kind of civic society we want for ourselves and our children, we need to do more to ensure that we stop imprisoning the most vulnerable in the community and provide the resources and structures and supports to help them rebuild their lives. I am hopeful that there will be a number of recommendations coming out of the Royal Commission into Mental Health next year that will help to start remedying the current situation.

JW: That should be it but is there any question I didn’t ask which may have been welcomed?

TW: One of the things I would like to do in my year as President of the Law Institute of Victoria is to shine the light on the significant contributions made by lawyers on a daily basis. We are a profession that for the most part is motivated by the highest ideals of helping others. Some, like me, do it in the community and CLC (Community Legal Centre) sector, others in their own private practices but through helping their clients, be they victims of domestic violence or of abuse, people buying their first home, on either side of a tenancy dispute, in business, in the workplace or supporting and mentoring junior lawyers or others in the community every day.

At the Law Institute, lawyers from every practice area, including employment law, commercial law, human rights and administrative law, succession law and so many others give countless hours of time generously and voluntarily every week to work on issues of fundamental importance to the community and the proper and fair administration of justice. Others quietly, volunteer or otherwise help individuals, small businesses, not for profits, to be able to do the work they need to do that can benefit others.  At a time when we are hearing so much negative press about one individual in the profession and her behaviour, we need to see it in context of over 19,000 solicitors in this state (and barristers too) who give, in one way or another, of themselves for the benefit of their clients, the profession and our community.

Tania Wolff’s legal service at First Step Legal was up to July this year, wholly funded by philanthropy and donations with coming many from the Jewish community whos have been our generous and loyal partners and supporter for years. Since July, First Step Legal has been receiving partial funding from the government as a community legal service.

Tania Wolff has been with First Step Legal since 2012. 

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