4 July 2024

Widely known for her expertise in anti-discrimination, employment and industrial law, former Fitzroy Legal Service Board member and long-term Night Service volunteer, Carol Andrades, says when you bring law and activism together, you can move mountains.   

After graduating from the University of Melbourne in Arts/Law in 1978, Carol thought that she would never work as a lawyer. “I felt I didn’t have anything in common with the stuffy legal profession,” Carol says.  

“I wasn’t a typical law student from a privileged background, with connections into the legal world. Back then, there were also very few students of Indian origin at the university, let alone at the law school”. 

“My past self would be shocked to hear that I went on to practise law and that I’m a visiting lecturer at the same law school. However, a lot has changed there, with a more progressive curriculum which takes account of matters such as gender issues and social justice.” 

One subject which did hold Carol’s interest was labour law – perhaps because she grew up hearing stories about her great-grandfather, who was a trade union activist in Burma at a time when unions were illegal.  

“It made me realise that the law could be used as an equalising force and a tool to address power imbalance. I found that fascinating.”  

In 1980, Carol started working at the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, the forerunner of today’s Fair Work Commission. There, she met trade unionists and labour lawyers, and became aware of the potential for employment and industrial law to be used creatively, to benefit people who were vulnerable. 

“Basically, you can choose to interpret an Act of Parliament narrowly, as it has been done time and time before, or you can consider the spirit of the Act, and see if there is a little doorway to equality that no one has opened before,” Carol adds. 

There can be a great difference between inert words on a page and the way they can be used.” 

While at the Commission, Carol met a senior partner in labour law firm Maurice Blackburn & Co who inspired her to do her articles there in 1986. In a few years, she became a partner with the firm, where she worked with the trade union movement and community groups, and was instrumental in establishing the firm’s Women’s Law Section.  

It was there that she developed a deep interest in anti-discrimination law, after running cases involving discrimination and sexual harassment at work, including successfully advocating for the right to family leave for same-sex couples in the Special Family Leave Test Case.  

She has a particular interest in intersectional discrimination. “For example, LGBTIQA+ people may face structural disadvantages at work, but if they are also persons of colour, or a have a disability, or carer responsibilities, the disadvantage and discrimination can compound and multiply,” Carol says. 

“The law is still not dealing well with this phenomenon, but lawyers also need to use the existing laws creatively. 

I like to use the analogy of jiujitsu. You can be small and poorly resourced, but by using the law strategically, you can take down a larger, more powerful opponent.  

Carol Andrades

“That’s what FLS does every day, and it illustrates the equalising force law can have, especially when used in combination with community activism.” 

These principles laid the foundations for many of Carol’s cases. In 1993, she acted for women prisoners at risk of being relocated to a high security men’s prison.  

“The Kennett Government in the 90s was focussed on privatisation, and that included privatising Fairlea Prison, a low security women’s prison in Fairfield,” Carol says. 

“They wanted to move the women to the Jika Jika wing of Pentridge, a high security men’s prison designed for violent perpetrators, pending the building of a new women’s prison.  

“Most of the women were in prison for crimes of poverty, such as social security issues or victimless crimes involving substance use.  

“Moving to the harsh environment of a high security prison would have had a severely negative impact on the women, many of whom had young children visiting them.  

“After we issued proceedings alleging indirect sex discrimination and seeking an interim injunction under the Equal Opportunity Act, the Government relented and the women stayed where they were, which was a good result. But the law was only a tiny part of the campaign.  

“Full credit goes to the efforts of fearless activists who organised a 24-hour vigil outside the women’s prison for an extended period until it was clear that the women would not be moved.” 

It’s this combining of law and activism that Carol says has remarkable potential for justice when they work together. “People worked in shifts at the vigil, just sitting and monitoring movements of government vehicles.  

“There was a caravan on a site across the road from the prison, and we had clunky early versions of mobile phones so that we could notify each other if there were any signs of women being moved.” 

Through much of her time with Maurice Blackburn & Co, Carol volunteered on Tuesday nights at Fitzroy Legal Service, something she has since returned to.  

“After moving to Canberra I kept my practice in Melbourne and commuted between Melbourne and Canberra for a while but volunteered at a women’s legal service and domestic violence crisis service in Canberra.  

“When I moved back full-time to Fitzroy, it made sense to get involved with FLS again,” she continues. “Things have certainly changed. When I became a Night Service volunteer in the late 1980s, attendance notes were hand-written and client files were kept in cardboard folders, stacked on shelves, up to the ceiling.” 

“There was no rigid appointment system for the Night Service, so we would stay until we’d seen all the clients who came through the door, often late into the night. And then we’d go get something to eat together afterwards.

The bonds that united the Tuesday night volunteers of those days have stayed strong, and we still catch up for a meal from time to time. 

Carol Andrades

“What has not changed is the calibre of FLS staff. They work so hard. FLS truly attracts people with a passion, who go above and beyond the call of duty without being asked.” 

Parallel to the work of Victoria Legal Aid and pro bono work of law firms, Carol says community legal centres like FLS are vital to the fabric of justice and offer the unique role of making legal support approachable. “The people who founded FLS deserve a medal for their vision.” 

“The establishment of FLS changed the landscape for access to law in Australia, and it continues to be an important first point of contact and guidance for so many in our community,” she adds.  

“Apart from anything else, triaging and early classification of legal issues can make all the difference when rights are at stake. 

“At FLS, people can also get support in a non-threatening environment. It is less intimidating than the sterile city offices of law firms and large bureaucracies.” 

Carol has been quoted in John Chesterman’s history of FLS Poverty Law and Social Change as saying that the law can be like a five-star restaurant where you need to know the maitre d’, but FLS is like a pub where you can just drop in.  

This accessibility is something which continues, with significant outreach across health and community services, targeted holistic services for those most at risk, and the 50-year-old volunteer-powered Night Service that is delivered from Fitzroy and Reservoir.  

Carol Andrades is a Senior Fellow with the University of Melbourne’s Law School where she lectures at master’s level in Equality and Discrimination at Work.  

Following a period as partner with Maurice Blackburn & Co. and then as consultant to Ryan Carlisle Thomas and Gordon Legal respectively, Carol now consults privately and volunteers with Fitzroy Legal Service and the Adult Migrant English Program. She is also on the editorial board of the Employment Law Bulletin, is a member of the advisory board of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Employment and Labour Relations Law, and has served on boards and committees of numerous statutory authorities and community organisations.  

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