Susanne (Sue) Schreiner was a pioneer of the Canberran and Sydney legal community, and an empathetic advocate for the reformative place of law in the community and the role of the courts as a protector of human rights and liberties. She is remembered for her commitment and contribution to the community, as a champion of the need for compassion in the administration of justice, and as a woman who despite facing a myriad of difficulties throughout her life and career refused to waver and instead responded by putting her head down and getting on with it with a courageous spirit.
Sue graduated in the first cohort of ANU law graduates in 1962 (having commenced her studies on an arts/law scholarship at the University of Sydney), and was then admitted to the New South Wales bar and entered onto the High Court roll in May of that same year; the first woman in ACT to be admitted to practice as a barrister. Shortly thereafter, Sue became the first woman to appear before the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory (an appearance described as a 'particularly successful one'). Both of these 'firsts' were widely reported upon in the Canberra Times at the time; an early testament to her success and a promise of things still to come. In many ways, this pioneering spirit was a reflection of her upbringing; Sue’s mother having been the first woman to acquire a builder’s licence in Australia, and both Sue and her family having re-established themselves in Australia after fleeing Vienna shortly before World War II and spending a period in an internment camp in Tatura.
Having practiced for three years with John Donohue in Canberra, Sue relocated to Sydney in 1965 where she became the sixteenth woman to practice at the New South Wales bar. Although conscious of being one of the few women practicing at the bar at that time – reflecting later that attending the bar common room for lunch was a 'terrifying' and 'daunting' experience – Sue refused to be defined or limited by that status. Memorably, in her days appearing in the Divorce Courts, Sue mounted a one-woman protest to her colleagues’ suggestion that she robe in the ladies bathroom. Sue - knowing the importance of being present in the robing room for those critical at the court-steps negotiations - opted instead to robe and disrobe alongside the men using the 'brightest pink petticoat' she could find.
Less than three years after commencing her practice at the NSW Bar, Sue had appeared in the High Court of Australia before Chief Justice Barwick, and Justices Menzies and McTiernan (led by Clive Evatt QC) for the successful appellant. She would go on to be led often by Evatt. Whilst at the bar, Sue also read with John Kearney, juniored to Tony Bellanto QC, and worked alongside the likes of Val Menart, Adrian McGuiness, Paul Flannery, Alex Bannon, and Mary Cass. Sue also maintained her love of academia and legal studies, working as a court reporter for the Law Book Company and Butterworths, consulting with the latter as to the feasibility of an Australian version of Halsbury. In 1971 she co-authored with Kevin Morgan the leading text Probate, practice and precedents, and in 1975 the pair co-authored a companion text, The probate act and rules.
However, by far Sue’s greatest contribution to Australian legal jurisprudence – and to the broader community of New South Wales – was her period of service of nearly twenty-five years as a magistrate (from 1975 to 2000). In that time, Sue presided over a wide variety of cases – both in subject matter and location (ultimately sitting in most courts in New South Wales, both metropolitan and regional). This included a period of eight years at the Redfern Local Court (from 1980 to 1988), during which Sue became close friends with MumShirl MBE AM, who Sue has previously described as becoming her 'mentor in Aboriginal affairs and in life with all its challenges'. Later, she took on the role as Assistant City Coroner for two years, presided over the Broken Hill Circuit Court for two years, went on circuits in Wilcannia, and conducted a number of hearings under the Mental Health Act.
In that time, Sue sought to use her position in the community to act as a champion for the protection of the vulnerable and of the Court’s place as a safeguard of human rights and liberties. She was known in this regard to be forceful in drawing to the attention of the government and legal community perceived deficiencies in the services provided in rural communities and failings in the adequacy of the law to prevent the unjustified deprivation of liberty. Sue was also well known as an advocate for the particular difficulties faced by Aboriginal people, children and those leaving incarceration, and for her concerns as to the injustices created by poverty, low opportunity, voicelessness and discrimination. Despite the work involved, Sue viewed it as an 'absolute privilege' to be able to travel to and engage with people and the challenges faced by communities across New South Wales. Perhaps more than anything, Sue was keenly conscious of the impact which the law – and the Court process – could have on an individual, both good and bad. This was illustrated in her practice of requiring young offenders who came before her to, on the eve of a sentencing hearing, pen an essay on the topic of 'What is the effect of a criminal record' to encourage them to consider the consequences of their actions.
The Canberra Times, 1962.
Amongst other notable contributions during that period, Sue was an author of a study called 'Ultimate Isolation' which reported on persons who had died alone and lay undiscovered for substantial periods, with a view to improving awareness of how this could occur and how it might be prevented. Sue’s report re-surfaced in 2008 when the issue once again attracted media attention; her report remaining as insightful and useful as ever. Outside of her magisterial responsibilities, Sue played a critical role in establishing the Homeless Children's Association, and also served as the first Patron of South Sydney Youth Services (now Weave) and President of Glebe House.
Not one to accept the idea of 'retirement', Sue continued as an Acting Magistrate from 2000-2008, as well as serving as Chair of the Serious Young Offenders Review Panel and on the Premier’s Council on Crime Prevention. During that time, Sue was also involved with the Tranby National Indigenous Adult Education & Training Centre in Glebe, including participating on a study tour in Kalgoorlie. Sue later moved to Canberra with her partner long-term Alan. There, she continued to be involved in community projects and organisations, later developing a growing passion for animal welfare and ethical issues, including serving on the RSPCA’s Approved Farming Scheme Panel, Boards of Vets Beyond Borders and Delta, Vets Beyond Borders, Health Care Consumers ACT, ACT Ministerial Council on Health, Canberra Hospital Ethics Committee and Woden Seniors.
Sue will long be remembered for the mark she made on communities throughout New South Wales and for the example she set as an early pioneer of the female bar.