Vale Hal Wootten

It is with sadness that we mark the passing of Emeritus Professor Hal Wootten AC QC on Tuesday 27 July and express our condolences to Hal’s wife, Gillian Cowlishaw, and all his family.

The founding Dean of the UNSW Law & Justice Faculty, a Supreme Court Judge and a Royal Commissioner, Hal was a longterm NSWCCL member who served on our committee and dedicated his life to the protection of human rights.

His accomplishments went beyond the law, with stints as President of the Australian Conservation Foundation and Chairman of the Australian Press Council. He was also an amateur expert on birds and a breeder of quarter-horses.

Much of Hal's involvement with the NSWCCL reflected his lifelong commitment to righting the wrongs suffered by Indigenous Australians.

Soon after he was appointed Dean at UNSW in 1970, he was approached by some Aboriginal men about police harassment in Redfern. The 21 division had started to 'blood' some of their young constables by going into the Empress Hotel to find a drunk Aboriginal person to arrest. The likely outcome was a fight and three charges: drunk in a public place, assault police and resisting arrest, with no bail granted. Hal's students began going to the Empress to act as observer witnesses and instructing pro bono lawyers in their defence. 

It was clear that police behaviour towards the large Aboriginal population in Redfern, where a de facto curfew had been imposed, was cause for deep concern. Hal was quick to point out that Indigenous people were discriminated against in law and were over represented in the prison population by a factor of ten. "In many places," he said, "it is quite clear that there is a police tradition of just picking up Aboriginal people on any excuse or no excuse at all".

Hal became convinced of the need to set up a legal service specifically for Aboriginal people and thus the Aboriginal Legal Service was born, with Hal as its first President. He said:

"We are anxious that our service will provide justice in an area where it has often been sadly lacking, but we hope to do much more than this. We believe that the existence of the service will greatly increase the confidence and self-respect of the Aboriginal community, and thus indirectly contribute to Aboriginal advancement in many areas."

In 1987 Hal was one of four additional Commissioners appointed to lead the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after the number of deaths requiring investigation, and the need to supplement the original single commissioner, became clear. 

Hal served as the Chairman of the Australian Press Council between 1984 and 1986. When the Council failed to object as Rupert Murdoch gained control of 70% of Australia's print media, he resigned in protest, writing: “Allowing Murdoch to assume control of Australian newspapers was unparalleled outside of totalitarian countries. The Federal Treasurer could stop the takeover if he wanted to … in this case it is a man who has renounced his citizenship to further his worldwide media power, and who makes no secret of the fact that he intends to make personal use of his control of newspapers.” Sydney Morning Herald 17 December 1986

An early proponent of Indigenous land rights, Hal commented that "rather than a giant leap forward, the High Court's Mabo decision was no more than a first step towards righting a terrible wrong and does little to give Aborigines a right that is sacred to every other Australian". He would go on to be a Deputy President of the Native Title Tribunal.

He was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1990 for services to human rights, to conservation, to legal education, and to the law.