Judge David MacLean makes history as first Indigenous WA District Court Judge
When you speak to newly appointed Judge David MacLean, there is no question as to how he has found himself the first Indigenous judge of Western Australia. In answering any question, he responds with clarity and smoothness that appears to be well thought out, almost as if he had predicted the question.
Much of Judge MacLean’s childhood was spent travelling around Australia, his family followed his father’s career as an air traffic controller.
“We lived in Sydney for a little while, and Cronulla. We lived in Canberra for a while, we lived in New Guinea, then over to Perth, then up to Port Hedland, then back to Perth,” Judge MacLean explains.
While most may succumb to the various issues that result in constant movement as a child, he explains that the love and support he received has kept him grounded.
“There was a lot of travelling, but I had the benefit of a very supportive family, notwithstanding the travel.
“I have been supremely lucky to have that support.”
Judge MacLean has strong family ties to the Pilbara region of Western Australia, a connection that has always resonated with him.
With a career that could have taken him many places, WA remains his home.
“Mum and Dad came from here [Western Australia], Mum was from the Pilbara and Dad was from Perth, [they] always had aspirations to come back here…so we decided to stay here to live.
“So far as my career goes, I have always been based in Perth, but really with a Pilbara focus in practice and in conjunction with my career.”
A young MacLean found himself, like most of the same era, drawn to the charismatic nature of the Labor Prime Minister of the early ’70s, Gough Whitlam. This attraction saw him wanting to follow the early career of the Charming Whitlam and Menzies, from the ’60s.
“[The law] was always something I wanted to do and again that comes from experience. We moved to Canberra in the early ’70s. [My parents] were both passionate Whitlam-ites.
“Gough was such an impressive figure, and as I learnt growing up, he was a barrister before becoming a parliamentarian. I thought that’s something I would like to be as well.”
“Obviously Robert Menzies was a leading silk as well and I think it was their persona and charisma, aligned with fact that they were outstanding barristers, that drew me to it in the first instance.”
In the years preceding his judicial life, Judge MacLean worked for the Aboriginal Legal Services (ALS) in WA and recalls fondly his time there.
“I loved it. I worked for the ALS from 1998 through to 2001. The great thing about ALS is that it is a truly state-wide practice so there were offices throughout the state. From a selfish point of view the benefit of it in Western Australia, is that you have the ability to work and travel. You get to see people from all over the state.
“Things that confront people in Albany, will be entirely different from that of people in Port Hedland, which will be different from the Kimberley.
“I think it was an unintended benefit of life as young kid when you do move a lot, you do have to learn how to shift, and you learn how to present yourself differently and get along with who you are meeting at the time.”
The new appointment has the Judge excited to expand his legal knowledge and becoming more capable of presiding over hearings.
However, when humour arises in the courtroom, he must remain reserved.
“It’s hard to not to react, but you must always be mindful that just because you find something funny, doesn’t mean that others will. You are dealing with people’s lives.
“You have to do your best to keep an open mind on all things that are in front of you.”
The role of a Judge also requires the heavy mental burden of findings of guilt, which come with it an entirely different set of emotions. Judge MacLean deals with the difficult part of the job through ensuring he always does his best.
“Sometimes the whole thing can seem so hopeless and meaningless.
“As long as you can say that you have done the best job you can… it will help you manage the best you can the distress and the sympathy that you feel for people that are involved in the proceedings.
“The sympathy extends to not just the victim of the offence, but also the offender. It is hard to not have sympathy for someone who has pleaded guilty to something.”
Fair and Fair Skinned
As a fair-skinned Indigenous man, the Judge has a steadfast cultural identity.
“I have always identified [as Aboriginal] as I am proud of my family.
“As someone who doesn’t look obviously Aboriginal, I felt I had a moral obligation to identify.
“For me, it was a matter of pride that I was related to these people, who … are just incredible people.
“I aspire to that and admire that [level of connection to Country] and always wanted to be a part of that.”
Racism in Australia before 1980, notes Judge MacLean, was brutal.
“In the 1980s… [Australia] was a strikingly racist place, people were very happy to just express racist epitaph openly, it was just appalling, People just say things you wouldn’t believe.
“Also, being conscious of the fact within our own mob, if you didn’t identify, well then you would potentially be copping grief [from your own mob] because they wouldn’t be hesitant to say, ‘Well don’t think that you are white’.
“People are [now] very conscious of inclusiveness, and are sincere in trying to embrace the culture and embrace the art.”
Deaths in Custody
Judge MacLean has been involved with various parts of the coronial inquest into Indigenous deaths in custody and hopes they’ll implement positive change. His sympathy for death’s in custody lies with the family members, but also the individuals working in the facilities.
“I can say from my own direct experience, meeting people that work in custodial facilities, they are also traumatised by deaths. My view of the people that work in those facilities is that it is not something that they want, they do all they can to prevent those deaths from happening.”
Outside the Courtroom
Away from the courtroom, Judge MacLean is a father to four daughters and husband to wife, Riyaana.
“There is always another [person around], you think you’re alone and then another little face pops up.
“They [his children] are all at different stages, they all act and react differently, I am really blessed to have them.”
The ceremonial sitting for the Judge took place on Tuesday this week at the District Court.
By Caris Duncan
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