Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Wyvern, Kristen Hilton (Arts/Law, 1993),
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner


What drives a young, successful corporate lawyer to turn their back on a fledging career trajectory and start advocating for social justice?

For Wyvern and Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kristen Hilton (Arts/Law, 1993), it was due in no small degree to the outlook provided by the well-rounded education her chosen course provided—in many ways a precursor to the ‘Melbourne Model’ where a multi-disciplinary approach is encouraged. Speaking at this year’s Queen’s Inn Law Dinner, Kristen recalls:

“I was introduced to Kundera, Marquez, Carver, Tolstoy, Calvino, Lawrence and Eliot … in the days of post modernism, but I had a secret passion for the modernists, their exploration of the human condition, the narrative structure—the fatalism but also comfort of a beginning, middle and end.”

This interest in causation, the human condition and social justice, however, was apparent from an early age when growing up in the small country town, Kyabram, in the North East of Victoria, where Kristen was the second eldest of five girls. As a teenager she stared a local Amnesty group and would spend her Saturday nights writing letters and making badges to sell rather than going to the movies with the other school kids. A particularly influential moment occurred when Kristen visited South Africa with her family as a 10 year old and saw first-hand the effects of apartheid. All these experiences helped to galvanise Kristen’s decision to to turn her back on her first legal job working in a big corporate law firm as an article clerk, and take up a secondment at Youthlaw, a young person’s legal right’s centre.
Speaking about her first day in the new job Kristen recalls meeting her first client, “she was the first client I had ever met face-to-face, because [at my previous job] I’d spent most of the two-years in a dungeon in Melbourne doing due diligence.” Her client was an aboriginal woman of about 21 years of age who had five children, her partner had been in jail for the past five years and she lived in a caravan with four of her children. Over the course of a three-hour conversation Kristen learned about the terrible abuse she had suffered in state care at the hands of four of her nine foster fathers.

“That was a pretty pivotal moment I think in my early career, because it made me see law in action in a way I hadn’t until then”, Kristen recalls. “And it is also made me realise this is what I want to do with my law degree.”

From little things big things grow—and not counting a three-year foray as an actor and appearing in Blue Heelers, no less—Kristen’s passion for standing up for the marginalised and being an advocate and agent for change within a number of social justice legal centres saw her be appointed as the new Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner in June of last year.
The whole Queen’s community were able to celebrate this wonderful achievement with Kristen at the Queen’s Inn Dinner in early May where we had the opportunity learn more about the work of the Commission and the challenges and opportunities ahead—more of which you can read here in Kristen’s thought-provoking speech here.

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