Stepping up to the Bar

By Niccola Anthony

A new exhibition has opened in the city’s legal district showcasing gains made in the diversity of Victoria’s 135-year-old Bar.

Changing Face of the Bar features 700 current practicing barristers in Victoria, contrasted with portraits of the Victorian Bar in the 1930s and 1980s.

Barristers from the modern era have been photographed in a range of attires, from surf lifesaving gear to sporting lycra and the formal barrister’s robes.

The exhibit aims to highlight the extraordinary diversity of the Victorian legal institution and distort community perceptions of a “boys club” at the top of the profession.

In 1937 the Bar is depicted through a series of black and white caricatures, which solely feature old, white Anglo-Saxon men. In that year, only two of the Bar’s 172 members were women.

By 1984, the Bar’s centenary year, the number of women members had increased to 75 out of a total 1112 members. 

Today, 45 per cent of the Bar’s members under the age of 35 are women. Cultural diversity has also evolved dramatically, with 37 languages spoken across the membership.

Prahran-based photographer Garth Oriander was commissioned to photograph the 700 barristers who took part in the project across an intensive two-week period in March.

The exhibition was then launched on September 6 at Owen Dixon Chambers West on Lonsdale St, where it will remain for three months in the Peter O’Callaghan QC Gallery.

The launch was attended by renowned photographer Bill Henson, whose own photographic portrait of former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne hangs proudly in the O’Callaghan gallery.

Victorian Bar CEO Sarah Fregon said the exhibition had come together remarkably well and had been a talking point among members for the better part of the last year. 

“The Bar has always been, to me, a very inclusive place and this has been a great opportunity to visibly demonstrate that,” Ms Fregon said.

“People really came out in force to support it because I think there’s a collective interest in letting people know that we’re accessible and that we truly reflect the community that we represent.”

Victorian Bar Art and Collections Committee member Stephen Jurica was responsible for arranging many of the exhibition’s logistics due to his experience as chair of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

“What the photographer really captured was a diverse, engaged and proud group of members,” Mr Jurica said.

“It was about humanising the Bar and showing the public that we’re all human beings and we’re not just people who you might see in court wearing the gown.” 

Mr Jurica said that his favourite photograph in the collection featured a mother accompanied by her young son dressed as a storm trooper from Star Wars.

When probed on why 2018 was such an important year to showcase the Bar’s diversity, Mr Jurica said it was simply a case of the time being right.

“Today is the next time that we’ve thought ‘okay, it’d be great to get a snapshot of the Bar and what we’re doing and who we are so to speak’ and that’s why we’ve done it now,” he said.

“It has been really well received and it has been a lot of fun, so we’re very thankful that the Bar and its members have embraced this concept.”

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