Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Tony McAvoy
On 15 March 2005, Australia lost one of its real heroes and role models. For although ‘Bob’ will be remembered by many as the first Indigenous Judge and as a staunch defender of Indigenous rights, his legacy is far broader.
Bob Bellear was a man who went about his life with honesty and integrity. Rather than talk about what needed to be done, he went and did it. Fortunately for many of his clients and those who have taken inspiration from his achievements, he was exposed to the high-handed and illegal actions of the New South Wales Police in the heady days of the street resistance of the 1970s. It was during this time that he saw the need to understand the law in order to fight injustice and, perhaps more importantly, the need for Indigenous people to be able to obtain legal representation from fellow Indigenous people.
Bob was there at the critical time for Indigenous community organisations that were being brought into existence such as the Aboriginal Medical Centre, the Aboriginal Legal Service and Tranby Aboriginal College. He obtained his law degree from the University of New South Wales in 1979 and went to the Bar as Barrister of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. There he joined the early spearhead of Indigenous barristers in the shape of Lloyd McDermott (Mullenjaiwakka) and Pat O’Shane SM.
Bob was known by all who had professional dealings with him as a barrister to be a genuinely talented advocate and a passionate defender of civil liberties. A mark of this respect from his peers may be taken from the broad support for his appointment as Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987.
In 1993, Bob became Dr Bellear with the award of an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University.
It will be recalled by those that attended his celebration drinks following his appointment to the District Court Bench in 1996, that his wife Kay Bellear proudly spoke of Bob not only having volunteered for the country circuit to take his craft to his people, but also of his substantial run of consecutive ‘not guilty’ verdicts numbering into the thirties.
Upon taking up his appointment to the Bench, although not able to be politically vocal as he had been from the Bar, Bob continued as a beacon to all Australians in terms of the need to be vigilant against injustice. While sitting on the District Court Bench he was, for a period of time, the Chairperson of the New South Wales Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee and had been the Patron of Ngalaya Indigenous Lawyers and Law Students Association.
Bob Bellear did ‘walk the walk’, and was known for his generosity. Perhaps most tellingly though, those that knew him from his younger days say the various achievements, accolades and his elevation to the bench did not change him. His modesty would not allow it.
It was a matter of concern to Bob for many years that he had been the only Indigenous appointment as Judge; that now he had opened the door, others should find it easier and his people should swell the benches. Unfortunately, there are too few, too far behind to squeeze through the sizeable gap left by Bob’s large frame. But he need not have despaired for the lack of his mortal presence will not diminish the broad recognition of his strength of spirit and unfailing integrity that pushed the door open in the first place.
As a lawyer he was and remains highly regarded; as an advocate for his people his memory will live on; but it is as a man who loved his family and was ever loyal to his friends, who honoured his word and acted on his beliefs, that he will be remembered.
Tony McAvoy is a Murri man and a member of Frederick Jordan Chambers in Sydney.