Real Life

From Berry to the Bar: An exclusive interview with high profile, Human Rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson

To the British press, Jennifer Robinson is ‘the A-list’s go-to lawyer’, who has fronted high profile cases including Amber Heard and Julian Assange. Those close to her know her for as the girl from Berry who is now fighting for justice in the highest courts in the world. Genevieve Gannon meets the renowned Australian human rights lawyer.

It is human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson’s birthday, and she is up at 7am, coffee in hand, talking The Weekly through the minutia of the WikiLeaks High Court appeal from her London home. She has just flown in from Geneva, having recently returned to Europe from Australia, via Saudi Arabia, and is readying herself for the final fight in her 13-year campaign for her high-profile client, Julian Assange. Despite the early hour, she is warm and conversational. There is no sign of jetlag or her hectic schedule as she shares anecdotes of her childhood in Berry, on the NSW south coast, of dinner parties with Stephen Fry and Dannii Minogue, and the implications of the ruling that lies ahead. She discusses her devotion to ending the way domestic violence victims are silenced, her fierce support for Australia’s public education system and, of all things, the imposter syndrome that plagued her during her years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. 

For a barrister who has represented some of the world’s largest media organisations and was named International Pro Bono Barrister of the Year in 2019, one would have imagined the venerable halls of Oxford were a haven. Not so, says Jen.

“You’re surrounded by the best students from the best universities around the world and there’s this very male culture where you’re not shown any examples of women who have succeeded. I remember finding it really challenging, incredibly competitive, pressurised, and incredibly sexist. It was just difficult,” she explains. “My imposter syndrome was going wild.” 

Oxford is a long way from her small hometown of Berry, on the NSW south coast. And Balliol College’s spires and stone garrets pre-date the colonisation of Australia. The college has produced four British Prime Ministers and several Nobel Prize winners. But few 22-year-olds could boast a resume like Jennifer’s.

She had already won the University Medal in Law from ANU and assisted in the escape from West Papua of jailed independence leader Benny Wenda and his family. She was instrumental in securing their freedom not just through her legal work, but by physically pressing cash into the hands of Benny’s wife, Maria, as she fled with their daughter to a Papua New Guinea refugee camp under the cover of night.

Jennifer with her teacher mum, Lyndy. (Photo: Supplied)

When Benny was granted asylum by Britain, Jen was by his side to welcome Maria at Heathrow. Riding the London tube, she explained to Maria, in Indonesian, how key cards worked. Jennifer is a woman who never does things by halves, and always sees things through to their end.

Yet the forces of elitism and old-fashioned sexism at Oxford conspired against her.

Jennifer tells a story from her coming-up dinner. “Basically, the Vice Regent was like ‘Oh yes, we let women in so look around fellas, you could be sitting next to your future wife’. And I thought, ‘What? Have I worked my arse off to be here to become marriage fodder for some talented young man?’ No!”

Within a few years Jennifer had defied the middling expectations of the Vice Regent, securing a position at the prestigious Doughty Street Chambers and appearing with Julian Assange on the front page of newspapers around the world. Yet sexism would continue to menace her, particularly as her profile rose. When she advised actress Amber Heard, who gave evidence in the UK libel lawsuit between The Sun and Johnny Depp, the hatred rained down on Amber, and Jennifer. The experience forms a chapter in her book, How Many More Women?, co-authored with fellow lawyer Keina Yoshida, which addresses how the law fails victims of gender-based violence. 

“I like to think about the law in a much more strategic way,” Jennifer reflects. “So, whenever we identify cases that might set that precedent or provide an opportunity to push the law along, I get excited about the idea of thinking strategically and creatively and proactively about how we make the law better.”

She laughs easily and often as she shares stories throughout the interview, but when the topic shifts to Assange she becomes serious. Beneath her explanation of the appeal and what it could mean is a grave sense of foreboding. 

“When I say his life is at risk it’s not an exaggeration, it’s what the medical evidence that was accepted by the British court says,” Jen explains. “The prospect of what lies ahead for him is unbearable.” 

Dad Terry is a horse trainer. (Photo: Supplied)

Born in Berry

Jennifer’s journey started, as many do, with a passionate and imaginative teacher. Mrs Fitzgerald taught Indonesian at Bomaderry High School and arranged a class trip to the Asian nation. “Mrs Fitzgerald, she was wonderful,” Jennifer says. “I really wanted to see the world and Indonesia was my first opportunity to do so.”

Jennifer’s mother, Lyndy Cracknell, is a teacher, and her father, Terry, is a horse trainer. Money was tight, so Jen worked to help pay for the trip.

“That was my first overseas trip, with my school. I was 16, I’ll never forget it. It blew my mind. It opened my eyes. I realised how lucky we were in Australia with the freedoms we have, the wealth, the quality of life and the living standards we have.”

Being able to communicate with locals in Indonesia was both empowering and enthralling. Jennifer continued her Indonesian studies as part of her double degree at ANU. It was through a year abroad, volunteering with an NGO in West Papua, that she met Benny Wenda, the founder of the Free West Papua Campaign. He was in prison at the time and Jen was part of his defence team. She got to know Maria in secret late-night meetings.

“I’d literally have my hair covered, I would put what would look like a Muslim headdress on and cover myself completely. And we’d walk through the bush behind where I was living, over to another spot where we could be picked up and driven to where she was living in hiding.”

“Julian should have never been indicted.” (Photo: Rachael Tagg)

ANU forced Jennifer to leave West Papua after the Bali bombing blew up the Sari Club, and the backpackers’ hostel where Jen had stayed on previous visits.

The next time she’d see Benny would be in London. “It was exhilarating to see what my legal skills could do, and the impact that you can have as a lawyer, and that really … I can’t explain how rewarding that was.” 

She returned to the ANU and put her head down, eventually applying for, and winning, a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

Hallowed halls

At Oxford Jennifer found herself confronting feelings of inadequacy. The struggle was not hers alone, nor exclusive to women. When she sought help she learned depression was rife.

“The number of students who are on antidepressants at Oxford is some appalling rate like 80 per cent, so it’s not an easy place to be. I ended up on antidepressants and the doctor told me that figure, I think, to make me feel better. And I had such a hard time I had to have a term off,” she says. 

“Because everybody was A-types, no one spoke about it. I really wanted to talk about it because once I gave people permission to talk about it, they felt comfortable and suddenly all this stuff started coming out.”

Coincidentally, Benny and Maria had settled in Oxford. Their home was a 10-minute bike ride from Jennifer’s college and she would visit them often.

“Having Benny and Maria there was wonderful because they just grounded me a lot and they gave me a constant reminder of why I was there and what I wanted to do and why I was putting myself through this pain. Oxford is hard. And their constant faith in me was really important.”

Oxford, she says, “gave me this remarkable intellectual rigour”; it was also where she met distinguished human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who hired Jennifer as a research assistant. In Geoffrey, Jennifer found a mentor who shared her unwillingness to accept the world as it was and encouraged her to think creatively about the law. 

Jennifer with West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda. (Photo: Supplied)

“Really, what lit me up was the work I was doing with Geoffrey. In the end I was like, ‘What am I here doing this PhD for when I could be doing the legal work?’ So I left.” For someone who had always followed the pre-ordained path, stepping away was difficult and her peers did not support the move. “It was like ‘she’s failed’ or ‘she’s given up’ or ‘she’s dropping out’,” Jennifer says. 

“Bob Hawke and Bill Clinton didn’t finish their degree,” she notes.

In the years that followed, people would seek her out to ask advice on making the terrifying move. “I became the poster girl for quitting your PhD.”

She worked with Geoffrey on important and interesting cases. “He rang me one day and said, ‘I want to make the case that the extent of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church is a crime against humanity and the Pope’s personally responsible and should be prosecuted for it.’”

Jennifer representing actor Amber Heard. (Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage)

Geoffrey subsequently wrote a book, The Case of the Pope, which argued that Pope Benedict XVI, who oversaw the Vatican judicial system for 25 years as a cardinal, should be held to account for clerical child sex abuse around the world. Knowing her family was Catholic – Terry Robinson’s horse racing colours are pale blue and white “for the Virgin Mary”, Jen explains – Geoffrey asked Jennifer how she would feel about doing the research. She was all for it. She is not a practising Catholic.

Geoffrey also introduced her to London society. Jennifer recalls dinner parties at his house with his then wife, ebullient novelist Kathy Lette: “I walk in and Dannii Minogue and I are the first two guests. And then Kathy and Geoffrey come home, and Barry Humphries walks in …  and then Stephen Fry. So I’m sitting there – can you imagine? I always joke that Kathy’s house is the alternative Australian embassy.” Kathy became one of Jen’s dearest friends. “I absolutely adore her,” she says.

Jennifer is generous with her time when it comes to friends and clients. The calibre of her work, particularly high-profile cases, attracted media attention. The UK paper The Mail dubbed her “The A-list’s go-to lawyer”. There’s a photo of her, smiling, in a black dress next to Bill Murray as they head to George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin’s wedding in Venice. (Jennifer and Amal worked together at Doughty Street Chambers.) Her Instagram includes photos of her at Royal Albert Hall hip-to-hip with Kylie Minogue. But the glossy side is just one small facet of her life. There are no cameras on her when she is fighting for West Papuan Independence or being frisked and fingerprinted at Belmarsh Prison during her visits to Assange.

Fronting the media with WikiLeaks editor Kristinn Hrafnsson. (Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Legal eagle

In 2010, publications around the world including The New York Times, El Pais in Spain and Le Monde in France ran simultaneous articles based on details of US diplomatic cables that included a tranche of heretofore secret information published by WikiLeaks, overseen by founder and editor Julian Assange.

Following the leaks, Assange would be recognised with press freedom awards and hounded by US authorities seeking to extradite him to stand trial for espionage. From the start, Jennifer has been by his side. “Julian should never have been indicted,” she says. “An Australian journalist is in a British prison, potentially being sent to prison for 175 years for the very publication for which he won the Walkley Award for most outstanding contribution to journalism and the Sydney Peace Prize … what that says about our democracy is appalling.”

She has received death threats and was subject to intimidation for her advocacy of Assange. Yet it wasn’t her most confronting case.

 Jennifer found herself under a harsher media glare in 2020 when she represented Amber Heard in the defamation suit between Johnny Depp and The Sun newspaper. Heard’s testimony was key to The Sun establishing a defence of truth, which the court accepted. Heard didn’t initiate the legal action, yet she and Jennifer were subjected to a maelstrom of hatred and abuse.

“I had Catholic protesters outside my house when we were doing that work on the Pope, with banners and shouting abuse. On WikiLeaks I’ve had death threats from current and former military officers – or at least that’s how they’d describe themselves when they’d send the death threats …  And I thought ‘What could possibly be worse than that?’ Who would have thought it would be an issue about domestic violence?”

She attributes the shocking trolling to a combination of factors. “It was partly celebrity, partly this backlash around #MeToo, partly this men’s rights, right-wing incel movement pushing back on progress that’s been made that all came together. 

“We’re already learning that some of the right-wing media organisations were putting money into funding pro-Johnny content around the trial. And so I think it was a coming together of things that created this tinder box or this explosion of online discussion and reaction. It’s like everybody had a view or had an opinion about it.”

Amber Heard will forever cherish Jennifer’s friendship. 

“Her brilliance and sheer fortitude helped me survive a deeply painful ordeal that I would not have been able to weather without her,” Amber says.

“When I say his life is at risk it is not an exaggeration.” (Photo: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)

Jen was in this firestorm because, in addition to being a human rights lawyer, she is also a media law expert. The two specialties go hand-in-hand. “Free speech is a human right,” Jennifer says. “International human rights law is and should inform – and does inform a lot of the litigation we see in media law space domestically.”

The WikiLeaks matter exemplifies this. At the time of writing, the UK High Court had yet to rule on Assange’s appeal against extradition. For supporters and loved ones, it’s an agonising wait.

Whenever Jennifer visits Assange, he asks about home. “To me it’s just heartbreaking… He’ll say ‘Jen, how was home? Tell me about Australia’. And it breaks my heart,” she says. “He says to me, ‘Jen, they’re stealing my life’. And he’s right.”

Jen’s readiness to speak up for those who speak out is a theme that has run through her career.

“Those are the cases where defending free speech is most important: When it’s most controversial,” she says. “Because it’s easier to defend views that you can stand by, that suit your own view of the world. But I take a really strong view that we have to defend the speech that’s most controversial because … that’s where we stand to lose. To lose ground. And as soon as you start to lose ground, then we’re all at risk.”

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