Women in Law Series, Part 3: Q&A with Alison Battisson of Human Rights 4 All

Alison BattissonAlison Battisson, Director Principal at Human Rights 4 All, joined Natalie from Legalwise Seminars for the third installment of our Women in Law series.
Full of practical tips for young professionals and raw insights into a diverse and fascinating international legal career, the interview follows her achievement as a finalist for Private Practice Lawyer of the Year award from the Women Lawyers Association of NSW (WLANSW).


Maybe we could start with what inspired you to establish Human Rights 4 All and focus on human rights issues?

Human Rights 4 All is really unique in that we’re a private company law firm that is also a charity. We’re not a community legal centre. We’re not getting any government funding and we only do pro bono work. It’s for refugees, stateless and Indigenous people in immigration prison, and Afghans at risk overseas trying to get to Australia.

It started because I started going into Villawood Immigration Detention Centre and meeting people who hadn’t seen a lawyer for half a decade. A lot of the public funding had been cut to actually visit places of detention. And there was a lot of focus on offshore detention on, on Manus and Nauru.

And they really did need attention. But it, there was a gap in the market, which is a horrendous way to put it, but for onshore detention, so that’s where we came in. It just grew organically from me at the kitchen table to where we are now, with us servicing all detention centres in Australia.

We represent refugees in Christmas Island, Perth, Yongah Hill, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney, and we’re supported through private donations and court costs. When we win, the government has to pay our court costs. We’re strange in the way we do it, but because we’re small and focused on liberty and ending indefinite detention, these very clear objectives and aims are the reason why we’re able to be so effective.

We aim to not to exist, actually. That’s our biggest aim. It’s rare for a charity to aim not to exist, but we think the existence of executive administrative detention is something that that can be solved. For me to shift dramatically to something else, if I was still at the helm of Human Rights for All, it just wouldn’t sit well with me. So hopefully one day I won’t have a job, and that would be great!

Could you share your journey from being a corporate lawyer to founding HR4A? What prompted this transition?

I started at Mallesons (now King Wood Mallesons), in private equity, which I didn’t even know was a thing when I was at university, but loved it. I worked in the Sydney office and did part of my summer clerkship in Hong Kong. I’d always had an interest in other countries and cultures.

Prior to my Juris Doctor in Law, I did a degree in Arts and Asian studies and with a focus on China, and went there to study, so when the opportunity came up in Hong Kong for part of the summer clerkship, I snapped it up. After this, I went to London and worked in a boutique, very Oxbridge law firm there, which was eye opening for both sides, I think! Then the global financial crisis hit, and because I was in private equity, my clients just ceased to exist.

So after spending eight years at university, and working for a few years, I was made redundant and I remember thinking wow, this was not the plan. This was amplified by the fact that I was still in London, where the GFC was felt much more than in Australia. It was at this time an opportunity arose to do something a bit different, and I made the move to Zimbabwe for a year. I worked at a sustainable demonstration centre, where we worked across human rights issues, set up a microfinance bank, and taught people about health and nutrition. I’m an ex semi-pro boxer, so we also taught boxing to the kids, particularly the girls. But over time, it became clear that perhaps it was untenable for us to be in Zimbabwe for any longer, and we ended up on the Zimbabwean CIA’s list of persons of interest.

I’m pretty sure it’s just some paper list in a back office somewhere, but it was probably time to go! So I moved to Indonesia and worked at the local office for Herbert Smith Freehills, in extractive industries law, or mining, oil and gas, for three years. After this, I moved back to Australia and worked at a mid-tier firm, with the goal of achieving some work life balance. But it just seemed that everyone else had the life and I had the work. And I thought, well that’s not how this should actually work! I started visiting places of detention, retrained, did a master’s in social justice and human rights law at UNSW, and that’s basically how I’m where I am today.

That’s quite the story, it could be a book!

Maybe! It’s been fun.

Did you encounter any challenges while working with volunteer organisations in diverse regions?

I know this is going to sound weird, but not really. For example, one of the soft skills I utilised in Indonesia was assisting Western companies and investors to understand and engage with Asia. Because I’d been to university in China and had a degree in Asian studies, that sort of work and area was easier for me and I do well in chaos, which is why I preferred to work in Jakarta than, for example, be based in Singapore.

Now on to some shiny bits from the last few months. Can you tell us more about the recent awards you’ve received? How do these acknowledgments motivate you?

When I started Human Rights 4 All, I was told by a senior partner at a large law firm that has a great pro bono project that there was absolutely no way my plan would work, and that I’d never be able to pay any staff. Their advice was that I’d be much better just joining a large law firm and trying to be part of their pro bono project.

And my response was, thanks for that! I’m just going to go and still do the thing that I was going to do before. Last year, that same senior partner contacted me to say how glad they were to be wrong! And that was quite lovely. I think it’s recognition that you can identify an ill in your society, have clear parameters around what that ill is and what can be done to address it. It’s recognition that one person can make a difference and build a team and that team can make even bigger difference.

There’s no way I could do what I do without my team and the clients who trust us to represent them in in cases, and I have to recognise that, also.

One thing I often hear is that clients must be incredibly grateful for what we do for them, pro bono. But my response is always, well, actually, it’s the other way around! We should be very grateful to have the honour to work with them because they are in such vulnerable situations. We should always remember how big an ask it is for them to trust us with their most intimate knowledge, thoughts, feelings, family situations, which in many cases they’ve never told anyone else because it could get them killed.

It’s a recognition, particularly where we’re successful in individual cases but also with strategic litigation, that these people and their stories are told, because often they’re not believed. The world works in a very different way to how most people in Australia thinks it does, and we need to understand what that is like for these people in our community.

So in terms of winning awards, we see it as a platform to provide education to other lawyers and the community at large about what is being done by the Australian government, in particular in terms of immigration prisons in Australia, with our taxpayer money. They can’t call it a prison, because if they do, it offends our separation of powers. Only the judiciary have the power to send someone to prison, so they have to call it a transit centre or an alternative place of detention, which is just a lie. They’re not even prison-like, they are prison conditions, so they’re a prison.

That is such an interesting point. Would you say it almost operates outside of the law?

Well, yes, it does. When people ask questions such as are they here illegally, or are they in the community illegally? My answer is always the same – you cannot arrive in Australia illegally. It is not in the Criminal Code Act. You don’t get put in prison for a breach of your visa or for arriving on a boat. It’s all the propaganda and the hype that was whipped up by both sides of politics. You can arrive irregularly. But you are not illegal and you cannot be charged. People smuggling is an entirely different issues, and yes, of course you can go to jail for that. But not by arriving and seeking help because it’s a fundamental human right. All of these phrases and words are powerful and it is so detrimental if they’re used incorrectly.

You did say at the start that you hope for HR4A not to exist in the future. Let’s say you meet those goals in three, five or 10 years, what is it that you would be pointing your energy towards?

The world is my oyster then! I’d like to do some comparative studies with other nations as to the legality of their refugee and stateless systems, but tied with the communication of them and how their populations understand what is happening. I’d also like to spend time on that frontline between Africa and the Mediterranean, for people arriving there. I think that’s a particularly acute human experience, and in fact, it’s the most dangerous sea border in the world at the moment. The rhetoric around that is just truly horrendous. The people coming across are actually the type that conservatives would want, they’re moderates. They’re not the ones wanting to change a country’s culture. No terrorist has ever arrived in Australia via boat – they fly business class, because what a stupid way of getting here! So by the time you’re on a boat, you’re so desperate to live and for your families to live. You’re not caring about secretly undermining British society or Australian society – that’s so far from what you’re doing.

What advice would you give to individuals who are inspired by your journey and wish to pursue a career in human rights advocacy or law?

My advice is don’t get into human rights too young, because it is full on. The stories are traumatic and you get sucked in. So go out as a young professional, enjoy your time, earn the big bucks, travel, be frivolous and pick up life experience. I’m good at what I do because I’ve been to every continent on the planet, except for Antarctica!

Every single country I’ve been to adds to my understanding of the human experience and helps me identify with clients and their experience. So my advice is get out there, have a great time because actually that’s how you’re building the knowledge to do something very sensible later on in life.

Alison Battisson is the founder and Director Principal of Human Rights for All (HR4A). HR4A is an Australian charitable human rights law firm which provides pro bono representation to refugees, stateless people and Indigenous people in Australia’s immigration detention prisons. Alison and her team focus on long term detained and complex-case refugees and stateless people to test the principals of liberty in Australia.  The firm’s overall aim is to change Australian law so that it no longer provides for the open-ended mandatory detention of such people.  Of particular interest to the firm are extremely vulnerable detained persons, including members of the LGBTIQA+ community, the disabled, and First Nations people whose complicated or unrecognised citizenship put them at risk of being deported.
In addition to the onshore immigration detention work, Alison also played a crucial role in assisting female athletes, their families and others escape Kabul, Afghanistan in August 2021.  Over 110 people were airlifted to safety as a result.  Alison continues to work to bring Afghan women at risk to safety.
HR4A represent clients at all levels of the legal system, including the High Court, Federal Court and various Tribunals.  HR4A regularly makes submissions to the UN Human Rights Council, Committee Against Torture, various special rapporteurs and the Australian Human Rights Commission. Before establishing HR4A, Alison worked as a corporate lawyer for top tier firms in Australia, the UK, Singapore and Indonesia. She has also worked with volunteer organisations in Zimbabwe, Australia and the UK. Alison is an in-demand speaker, lecturer and panellist, who speaks authoritatively to media and various audiences on a range of issues related to human rights and liberty.  She is also a former high-level boxer, and now tries to balance family time, sport and travel with her work with refugees and stateless people. Connect with Alison via LinkedIn