Meeting the demands of justice

28 Mar 2014

By Mark Reidy


Retired District Court Judge and Fremantle parishioner, Mary Ann Yeats, was initially reluctant to accept her appointment as Member of the Order of Australia because it did not recognise the Indigenous people who had helped her in the work for Aboriginal justice, but eventually did when she realised it would draw attention to such a vital issue.

The honour for the long-time member of St Patrick’s, who was the first US citizen to practise law in Western Australia, was announced on Australia Day this year for her significant services to law, particularly Indigenous injustice.

In a recent interview with The Record Mrs Yeats explained how her concern for righting injustice against minority groups began during the 1960s in the US when she marched alongside her husband, Donald, after the killing of Martin Luther King and through her involvement with community groups working to end racial discrimination.

When she arrived in Australia with Donald and three young children in 1974 and began studying law at the University of Western Australia, Mrs Yeats said she had no understanding of the tragic side of Aboriginal history and its lingering effects.

That all changed, she recalled, during the 1980’s and 1990’s with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the release of Bringing Them Home, a report of the Human Rights Commission highlighting the impact of forced removal of Indigenous children from their families.

“After I was appointed Judge in 1993 I received cultural awareness training along with the other judges of the Supreme and District Courts” Mrs Yeats explained. “From that I learned about colonisation and the terrible legacy of the stolen generation, the effects of which remain with us and are evidenced in the gross over representation of Aboriginal persons in prisons in WA”.

As a judicial member of the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration she spent 10 years as convenor of the Indigenous Justice Committee, a group of judicial officers and Indigenous people working together to provide cultural awareness education to the judiciary throughout Australia.

“I believed in the importance of judicial officers understanding the culture and laws of the Indigenous people we were called upon to deal with”, Mrs Yeats told The Record, “Lest in our ignorance we do injustice”.

She agrees with the sentiments of WA’s top judge, Chief Justice Wayne Martin who, when commenting on the “outrageous” Aboriginal incarceration rates in WA, called for a broader review of current policies.

“The courts cannot solve this problem alone”, Mrs Yeats concurred, “It arises from the gross disparity in health, nutrition, housing, school attendance and education”, she said.

Mrs Yeats’ pursuit of justice had always been central to her life, as has prayer.

From her early days in Chicago and later in Kansas City, when the family would seek God’s intervention in times of serious crisis or illness, prayer has always played a part in her life.

It was a practice she continued during her courtroom career when she would seek guidance from the Holy Spirit when deliberating over particularly arduous cases.

“Sentencing is the most difficult job Judges have to do”, Mrs Yeats reflected. “Our oath is ‘To do right by all manner of people without fear or favour’. But it is never easy”.

She found the cases involving the sexual abuse of children to be the most difficult, which usually involved males known to the victims and always involved distressing evidence,which at times would leave her emotionally effected.

“It is a heavy responsibility to do justice for the community, the victim and the offender”, she acknowledged, “And it is impossible not to feel concern for the offender when you do what it is your duty to do”.

Mrs Yeats recalls the case of a priest who was guilty of such a crime. “I gave him the lengthy sentence his offences demanded”, she said, “But I could not help but feel some sympathy for him, left alone, as he was, in a rural presbytery suffering loneliness and giving into his alcoholic demons”.

Her sense of self confidence, fortitude and the pioneering spirit required to become the second WA woman to be appointed a District Court Judge was developed from an early age.

“Growing up with three older brothers was a perfect preparation for moving into a male dominated judiciary”, she said.

“Working with so many men was never a problem for me. I was always treated with respect and I have always tried to treat others, whether female or male, with respect”.

Mrs Yeats’ university educated parents were strongly Catholic and had the same expectation for all five of their children – to achieve excellence in everything they did.

Sunday dinners, which evolved around challenging intellectual games and conversations about important political issues, had set the pattern for her path ahead.

After marrying in Kansas City in 1959 with a Latin Mass and a papal blessing from Pope John XXIII, Mrs Yeats and her husband’s adult faith was formed by the Second Vatican Council.

They became involved within their local parish developing the English liturgy being adapted at the time.

It was a project closely associated with Mrs Yeats’ second oldest brother, Fr Bill Bauman, who led liturgical renewal in Missouri and was a member of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy.

However the ultimate formation of Mrs Yeats’ faith came during a period of darkness, when her second child was diagnosed, at the age of four, with an inoperable, fatal brain tumour.

It was a situation that caused great distress for the family and triggered a deepening of faith.

“My mother had us all pray for the canonisation of Pope John XXIII and ask that our son be cured”, she shares. “And he was. That was the beginning of a very strong prayer life that has helped me at every stage of my life and continues to do so”.

During the 1960s Mrs Yeats promoted women’s rights, specifically as a volunteer in the League of Women Voters and by the early 70s she was heading the movement in Missouri to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Throughout her time with these organisations Mrs Yeats observed the influential roles of lawyers in securing successful changes and her longstanding interest in law took deeper root.

After graduating from UWA with First Class Honours Mrs Yeats took up a position as Research Officer to the Solicitor-General of WA, Sir Ronald Wilson in 1977 and later to the Hon Kevin Parker AC.

She then worked in the Crown Law Department until she was admitted to practice in 1982. She became an Australian citizen in 1986.

Mrs Yeats is pleased that her appointment as a Member of the Order of Australia has drawn attention to Aboriginal justice, but is also honoured to know that the work she believed was important throughout her career was also considered important by Australia.

“It is very gratifying as I grow older to know I have achieved some things that were of value to law and particularly Indigenous justice”, she said, “But I believe the honour should go to the Aboriginal people who have worked to educate the judiciary – they are truly the heroic ones”.

Mrs Yeats, who retired in 2011, today divides her time between Perth and the family farm near Augusta, spending quality time with her husband (whom she has been married to for 55 years), enjoying time with their four grandchildren and endeavouring to play as much tennis as she can.

“I am also a trustee for the Sister Kate’s Home Kids Foundation, do some mentoring of Aboriginal law students and mentoring young women lawyers”, she says. “I am thoroughly enjoying the freedom retirement brings”.

But despite her retirement Mrs Yeats continues to yearn for justice and believes there is a great need to work with Aboriginal people on community education programs so that society can develop understanding and respect for Indigenous people and their culture and laws.

“It is important that all of us in the non-Indigenous community understand what colonisation has done to Aboriginal people”, she stated, “That is the only basis on which we can move toward mutual respect and eventual healing for all of us.”