By Susan Chenery Posted Yesterday at 4:54am, updated Yesterday at 7:20pm
Jennifer Robinson is often on the evening news. For three straight weeks last July, her image was beamed around the world holding actor Amber Heard’s hand as they made their way through sometimes hostile crowds into the Royal Courts of Justice in London where Johnny Depp was suing the Sun newspaper.
Who was this woman in the red power suit, the world wanted to know? She is, they would discover, an internationally acclaimed Australian human rights lawyer. Heard describes her as “the most important, treasured asset in my life as a human being, as a sister”.
For the past 10 years, Robinson has been filmed standing beside her client Julian Assange or visiting him in the Ecuadorian Embassy where he was holed up for seven years before his removal to Belmarsh Prison. Her involvement in his case has led to death threats, surveillance and an attempt to stop her boarding a plane at Heathrow Airport.
In London, she is known as the go-to barrister for the rich and famous, described by You Magazine as “fast making a name for herself as one of the world’s hottest lawyers”.
But most of her work is done quietly, unknown, out of the media glare. Most importantly, the 40-year-old has a lifelong commitment to the fight for independence in West Papua.
In the UK, Robinson moves in the highest of society, mixing with the world’s most famous and accomplished people.
At sunset on September 27, 2014, she stood alongside actor Bill Murray on a boat on the Grand Canal in Venice as a flotilla of the rich and beautiful made their way to the wedding of George and Amal Clooney.
Her hair swept up into a chignon and wearing a backless black dress, Robinson was there because she and Amal are friends and colleagues. They both work in Doughty Street Chambers, which was founded by Robinson’s mentor, prominent Australian barrister Geoffrey Robertson.
A fierce lawyer defying assumptions
The upper echelons of the British legal world are populated by people who have been to the best private schools and spent their lives in the right social circles.
But Robinson was not born to that kind of privilege.
She grew up in Berry on the New South Wales South Coast. She did not come from money: her father is a racing trainer, her mother a teacher. The financial situation growing up, she says, was “stressful and difficult”.
She got where she is through sheer hard work. “She works 16 hours a day, every day,” says her mother, Lyndy Cracknell. Robinson went to local public schools and had to work three jobs to get through law school. She is the first elite Rhodes Scholar at Oxford to list surf lifesaving as her sport.
People have underestimated her because she is young and attractive. A friend once joked that when she arrived at Oxford: “He thought, ‘Who is this bimbo?’. But he admitted that I proved him wrong.”
She has been mistaken for being the secretary rather than the lawyer, something she can afford to laugh about now. “It used to really upset me, but now I quite enjoy
Robinson ‘addicted’ to going outside comfort zone
Robinson says she was “a really shy kid” in her school years. “I spent a lot of my time on my own, reading,” she says.
In year 7, she told a teacher at Bomaderry High School that she wanted to be a doctor. “She told me that I should perhaps lower my expectations. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll show you’.”
There was a difficult period when her parents separated when she was a “very insecure” teenager entering high school.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” Robinson remembers. “I threw myself into my studies and that was the one thing I could control.”
She was terrified of doing rescues when she started club surf lifesaving but pushed through the fear. “From then on, in the satisfaction that you get from pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, I think I’m probably addicted to it.”
Robinson suspects she got her phenomenal work ethic from her father. “My dad’s a racehorse trainer, like his dad was before him, and he works incredibly hard. He’s up at 4.30, works all day, every day. The worst thing you could possibly be called in my family is lazy.”
Robinson’s warmth and her ability to move seamlessly from the social stratosphere to the world’s most disadvantaged people comes, her mother Lyndy believes, from her childhood around racing.
“In racing, you’re exposed to a wide range of socio-economic levels,” Lyndy says. “You engage with the owners, the strappers, the press. She’s watched her father do that her whole life. Once she got over her shyness she is just comfortable with people.”
Her maternal grandmother was an important person for a child who would grow up with a burning sense of social justice.
“She was a single mum in Bondi in the 60s and ran an underground abortion network to help women from across country New South Wales to secure safe abortions when it was illegal,” Robinson says.
“She ran women’s refuges to support domestic violence survivors and fought for equal pay. I would visit my grandmother and go with her to work in the refuge.”
“Mum was always a person that would never give up,” Lyndy says. “And I think Jen’s inherited that.”
Robinson’s ‘life-changing’ work in West Papua
Robinson “wasn’t that interested” in her law degree to start with.
She was more interested in her Asian Studies degree, which included a year studying in Indonesia
“I did a semester in Jogjakarta and then went to West Papua to do a research project and volunteer with a human rights NGO. And those next few months changed my life forever.”
Ever since West Papua was occupied by Indonesia in the 1960s, there has been an independence movement that has been brutally suppressed by the Indonesian military.
She became deeply involved in the case of Benny Wenda, a leader of the Free West Papua movement, who was in prison charged with inciting violence and arson, charges Robinson says were trumped up.
When he was a child in the highlands his family had been forced to flee into the forest by a military attack. His aunts were raped in front of him and he never saw them again.
“Benny had absolutely no chance of getting a fair trial,” Robinson says. “He was attacked several times inside the prison and we were very concerned that they were going to kill him.
Robinson, who worked on Benny’s trial as part of his defence team, says she was “shocked by the injustice” she witnessed during the trial.
“But I was also intrigued by him. He had this remarkable presence.”
She visited Benny’s wife and child in hiding and gave them money so they could flee to PNG. She investigated rape and torture allegations, was shadowed by Indonesian intelligence and threatened with expulsion. She caught malaria twice. And when she was recalled to Australia following the Bali bombing, she smuggled out secret police documents revealing details of the crackdown on independence leaders. She was only 21.
“My time in West Papua was life-changing,” Robinson says. “I was traumatised by what I’d seen but I really felt that I could make a difference. So while I was overwhelmed and in many instances out of my depth, it was thrilling. It just seemed impossible to walk away from that.”
She now believes she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I was supposed to go back and finish my law degree, but I couldn’t do it. Suddenly, people were talking about what to wear to the pub on Friday night, and I just thought, ‘Who cares?'”
When Benny escaped from prison and made his way to the UK, Robinson was at Heathrow Airport with him to meet his family and she helped with their asylum applications.
When she came back to her law degree, it was with renewed purpose. “I knew what I wanted to do with it. And that was to help the people of West Papua and to become a human rights lawyer.”
She won the university medal and a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, putting her application together the day before it was due. In order to take up the scholarship, she turned down a job with High Court judge Michael Kirby, an indication of how fast her star was rising.
She had applied for the scholarship partly because she wanted to be near Benny and his family, who had settled in Oxford. In her first year, instead of boating on the Thames and going to May Balls, she spent a term living with Benny and his wife Maria, who had just had their fourth baby, taking their children to school.
“I already said to her, ‘One day you’ll become a big lawyer’,” Benny Wenda says. “At that point, you will help me.”
He was right. In 2018, Robinson appeared in the International Court of Justice to argue for the legal principles to protect West Papua.
Oxford, once the bastion of white male privilege, was a world away from anything Robinson had previously experienced.
“To be sitting in a huge fancy dining hall next to kids from Eton was a pretty big culture shock for a kid from the country, from a public school,” she says.
By her second year, she was doing research work for Geoffrey Robertson and pro bono work of her own.
“While my friends were sort of trudging off to the library, I was jumping on a plane to Mauritius. So I thought it was pretty fun.”
Assange is ‘intelligent, super bold, creative’
In 2010, Robertson asked her what she knew about WikiLeaks, saying Assange, “is going to need our help”.
The Australian founder of WikiLeaks had already provoked the ire of the US government with the release of the “collateral murder” video, showing US troops killing journalists and civilians in Iraq, and there was much more to come.
Robinson has been working on his case ever since. “There are so many angles to the case and it’s been fought on so many battlegrounds but it all has to be managed from a central point,” explains WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson. “And Jennifer has been instrumental in organising the entire team.”
“The thing about Julian,” says friend Kathy Lette, “is that he is brilliant but he has no social skills. And so there was only one lawyer that I thought would understand him and that was Jen Robinson.”
Lette’s own son has Asperger’s and Robinson had always got along well with him. “When Julian was diagnosed with Asperger’s it wasn’t a great surprise to those of us who have worked with him,” Robinson says. “And it explains some of the difficulties.
“But Julian is great fun to work with. He is super intelligent, super bold, very creative and is actually very caring.”
In the first two years Robinson represented Assange, she had to deal with an arrest warrant, major international publications, an Interpol arrest notice, the banking blockade and the Swedish extradition case.
But she believes the Assange issue is far bigger than just the man. “It is about the principle of protecting press freedom and freedom of speech. And this case is a terrible precedent for all journalists everywhere,” Robinson says.
Last year while she was fighting Assange’s deportation to the US, she was also advising Amber Heard, who was a witness in Johnny Depp’s defamation case against the Sun newspaper in the UK.
“That case raised significant concerns from domestic violence groups because of the ways in which the law can be used to silence those who want to speak out about their allegations of domestic violence,” she says.
She can’t say too much about it because it is still on appeal, and Depp is suing Heard for defamation in the US.
But what the world’s media coverage didn’t show was that they had to have police protection because Heard was so vilified. “I have never seen a client face the level of vitriol and abuse that I saw directed at Amber. And it’s a sad reflection on where we are as a society, that a woman who has got a restraining order in respect of domestic violence allegations has to face that kind of abuse.”
Mentoring for public school students
And now there is the giving back.
When Robinson started her law degree, she was struck by how many of her fellow students came from private schools and how different their expectations were to hers.
“They all knew judges and lawyers and politicians, and they certainly weren’t working the three jobs that I had to work to put myself through my law degree, she says.
“Being at Oxford, I realised how privilege works. Even of the scholarship students, the great proportion were white men who had been to private schools. Many of them knew about the Rhodes Scholarship from primary school.”
When she was at Bomaderry High School, “I didn’t really know a lawyer and certainly didn’t see any examples of lawyers coming either from my school or even really in my local community.”
In an effort to correct this imbalance, Robinson recently founded the Acacia Awards, in association with the Public Education Foundation. Prominent people who were educated in the public system will sponsor a student from their former school or area, providing mentorship and a small scholarship.
The idea is to show these students some of the pathways to success, provide them with networking opportunities that many private school students take for granted and reassure them that they have all they need for a great education at their fingertips.
Inaugural mentors include writer Kathy Lette, academic Larissa Behrendt, comedian Adam Hills, actor Rhys Muldoon, former MP Melissa Clarke, journalist Adam Creighton, broadcasters Tom Tilley and Myf Warhurst and Robinson herself.
When she visited Bomaderry High School with Australian Story, it looked a lot smaller than she remembered. It could not have been more different than the hallowed halls of Oxford, or the storied Elizabethan buildings of the Inns of Court in London
“But it’s really important for me to be able to come back and speak to the students because I feel like I got a great education here and I want to encourage kids to know that they can do whatever they want from a public education.”
Robinson hopes that somehow she can reconcile the very different worlds she lives in. “My hope has always been that I’d be able to split my time between Australia and the UK and I’m definitely working towards that.
“I do think that my career is really only just starting. As a barrister, life is long. Career is long. In the law they say you get better with age. So I feel like, yeah, I’m only just starting.”