Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Andrew Boe’s new book is both a record and a reminiscence of a series of cases in which he has been involved over past decades. He alerts his readers to shortfalls in the Australian legal systems, using case studies to make his points. His name is familiar to Australians who follow high profile legal cases that are reported in newspapers and the non-print media.
It would be presumptuous of me to attempt an explanation of Andrew Boe’s story from the time of his arrival in Australia to the present. Nor should I attempt to gauge his influence on Australians or Australians on him. He says it best himself.
I have been ‘an Australian’ now for more than half a century, yet what that means is elusive to me still…I look no less Burmese or more Australian (whatever that’s supposed to look like) than when I first arrived as a child…brought here by a father in search of a better life…Throughout, I have never forgotten that sage and kindly white woman, my Year 7 teacher, who saw discrimination and called it out (301 -02).
Andrew Boe’s working life has always been about discrimination, dislocation, and dispossession, and makes the point that ‘as a nation we are yet to acknowledge the effects of colonial disruption on the existence and dignity of the original inhabitants, and we have compounded this by how we view those who have come here since’ (302). He devotes most of the book to showing that our justice system is uneven in effect and on occasions harshly biased. The book allows no misinterpretation. It is an exposé of imperfect justice. Chloe Hooper describes the force that drives both Andrew Boe and his book:
We are all reduced when we accept systemic inequality, and need more than ever to look within ourselves and find the means to fight for a system that is better (xiv).
Boe claims that Australia’s criminal justice system was not designed to seek the truth, that it was planned with good intent for the society of the time, and is long overdue for a re-think. He claims it is rare for a trial to uncover the whole truth. His assertions are supported by cogent argument (see page 2 and the following pages). Baldly, Boe states:
I have found that outcomes in courts are often patriarchal, parochial and class-based, premised as they are upon imperfect human reasoning and subjective analysis, and tainted by biases we all hold (4).
These are not uncommon statements, but they are told uncommonly well. To offer support for his views, the author provides exhaustive details about a number of cases in which he played a large part.
One such case is the death of a couple in the Gibson Desert in 2011. This is a tragic tale of the clash of two cultures, and causes Boe to question ‘a concept in law that holds up equality as a virtue, or the pursuit of practical equality’ (29).
The book is more than a tell-all about the law from a criminal defence counsel’s view. It is that, but it is also a comprehensive account of Boe Senior’s daring attempts to escape Burma and settle in Australia, where his son could become a man in a less dangerous environment. There are blunders in the legal process committed by Boe as a young lawyer, and there are the overwhelmingly public trials of people like Ivan Milat and Cameron Doomadgee, Pauline Hanson, and a number of lesser known cases. Some twist the heart strings, others such as Callum Jackson, who took a palm reader’s advice over that of his lawyer, have only themselves to blame.
Case studies are informative and, in their own way, important as a matter of historical record. However, this book is about the uneven levels of justice that result from our justice system – which is not really a system for the twenty-first century after all. The writer of this book is full of rage and cynicism. He should be listened to. His case studies should be read. His recommendations should be followed.
By Andrew Boe
$32.99; 337 pp