A Mabo Memoir: Islan Kustom to Native Title

Image of a man
Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen

A Mabo Memoir: Islan Kustom to Native Title (Zemvic Press 2013) is a re-named, expanded edition of alumnus Bryan Keon-Cohen’s Mabo in the Courts (2011).

It is an insider's comprehensive account, written for the non-lawyer, by the plaintiffs' counsel and well-respected barrister, writer and activist Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen AM QC (PhD 2012).

After many years teaching at Monash University law school and working at the Australian Law Reform Commission, Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen joined the Bar in September 1981.

It was at the end of that year Ron Castan QC called and asked if he’d like to get involved in the Mabo litigation – a landmark High Court case that would determine the rights and interests Indigenous people in Australia would have to their land.

“I was retained from day one in the Mabo litigation and as a very, very young member of the bar, I was keen to pursue that brief,” Dr Keon-Cohen said.

“I’d always had an interest in social justice. As a 14 or 15 year old my mother took me to some of the fringe camps at Ayers Rock and to Alice Springs and I remember some appalling conditions there.

"I had worked with the Fitzroy Legal Service prior to going to the Bar and again when I was a tutor and then lecturer at the Monash Law School (1974 to 1978). I had lectured on questions of Indigenous rights and I was the founding editor in 1974 of a legal aid and poverty law journal called The Legal Service Bulletin.”

From the beginning of proceedings the legal team knew that the Mabo case had the power to change the course of history.

“We knew it was an important issue,” Dr Keon-Cohen said.

“We knew it held the potential to initiate real law reform by way of a decision of the High Court - by way of forcing the parliament to act.

“There was great agitation for reform both in academia and amongst aboriginal activists, but there was serious denial of human rights, particularly in Queensland.

“We had no legal aid, no money, but we did have very genuine, determined clients and a just cause. You never expected and never got proper payment but so far as we were concerned that was not the point.”

When asked why it is important for Australian to remember this period of our history, Dr Keon-Cohen is adamant: “We’ve had 200 years of violence - of very destructive settlements - of serious injustice and that continues in various ways today,” he said.

“We need to remember it, to understand it and to let it motivate us to do better in the future.”

Writing and giving speeches and university orations around the country, Dr Keon-Cohen is active in another area of serious social injustice - child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Dr Bryan Keon-Cohen says he is still at the Bar working on various native title matters but at a much slower and more comfortable pace.

His memory of Monash as a teacher and student is as a progressive place to study.

“As a teacher, I felt Monash had an aura of experimentation,” Dr Keon-Cohen said.

“The law school welcomed a ‘law in society’ approach and focused on developing new subjects. Monash was a relatively new university, full of interesting and creative people - the students were very active.”

For more information on A Mabo Memoir visit Dr Keon-Cohen's website.

*** "a wonderful story in human terms, it’s an important story in legal terms, and most significantly, it’s a very important story for the integrity of Australia as a just nation." - The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG