Sean Baker, Member at the AAT
Sean has been a member at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for several years in the Migration and Refugee Division, and prior to that as a member of the Migration and Refugee Review Tribunals. He has travelled to Istanbul to teach English, worked as a lawyer in the UK and volunteered throughout his university degree at various CLCs. Continue reading to learn more about Sean’s experiences and to pick up some tips on how to balance your study workload, manage your wellbeing and make the most of your law degree.
What has gotten you to where you are today?
I’ve always had a very strong sense that I wanted to study law and help others; this was a motivator for me even before high school. It took me in many different directions and eventually I got into law school at the University of Melbourne. I fell into a couple of roles; first in the Victorian Department of Education and then into a graduate position at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Eventually, I found my way into the Migration and Refugee Review Tribunal in Melbourne. I worked initially as a legal officer, and at that time they had amalgamated into the one tribunal combining refugee work as well as migration work. After four years of being a legal officer, I applied to become a member and was appointed in 2011. Ever since then I have been working mostly on protection matters, which is where my heart lies. I love being able to make a difference to people’s lives. My aim is to create a space where these people feel that they are being heard, even if there isn’t any substance to their claims; some of these people often have genuine fears of returning even if they aren’t well-founded. In my practice, I try to give them the opportunity to be heard and help them through whatever the decision might be.
What does your role as a tribunal member involve?
My role as a tribunal member involves assessing the validity of each appeal that I receive. To do this, I review all the information given to me from the department and the applicant. Generally, I will then have a hearing with the applicant, however, on the rare occasion I am able to set aside the decision from this process. The applicants are often unrepresented, so essentially; it’s just me, the applicant and their interpreter, sitting in a room and discussing their life for three or four hours. I am always struck by what a privilege it is for me to be in this situation. I am exposed to incredibly personal stories and see these people at their most vulnerable. Because of this, I believe that it is important to complete my job respectfully and always listen carefully to their stories. After the hearing, I then need to write up my decision and think very carefully about the adverse material that I’ve had to deal with.
How strong a role does empathy play in your profession, given that the law can place so much emphasis on being objective?
I start off every hearing by telling people that what’s important is that my decision is based on fact, and that if their claims cannot be substantiated then I might have to affirm the decision. I am clear in the beginning so that the applicants understand that whilst I feel deeply sorry for them and genuinely compassionate; there will always be the factual test to come back to. There is a subjective and objective element to the test, but we cannot let the subjectivity dominate. It is incredibly hard. I used to immediately give breaks to people who were visibly distressed and crying, but I have since realised that it can be better to sit in silence with them. People will often recover and want to keep sharing their story, as opposed to artificially breaking the conversation by having an adjournment. I try to make people aware that the hearing is driven by them and that it is their opportunity to share their story. I try to ensure that the balance is right between controlling the proceedings yet, still allowing them the space to be heard. It’s an evolving sense of trying to understand how they are feeling and respond appropriately to that.
How do you manage your own well-being and separate these tragic stories from your life at home?
My dad is a counsellor and finds it very interesting that we do what we do without any structured debriefing or counselling. Whilst we do have access to support services if we need them, there is no built-in process. The way that I manage my wellbeing is to cycle to and from work. It means that I can leave my work at work and separate it from my home life. There are cases, however, that do stay with me, even now. One frustration of the job is that you don’t know what happens to the applicants afterwards. I have had deeply traumatised applicants who were clearly not coping with life, and I often explain to the department that they need extra support services. Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing whether these people receive the extra support after my decision. I find that a real difficulty of the job as there is no overall visibility.
Do you think that there should be a tracking system that allows you to find out what happens to your applicants?
Yes and no. I think that it would be rewarding for me personally, but it is a selfish impulse. I hope that the department takes my recommendations seriously, but there is nothing that I can do for them once I’ve made my decision. It is interesting though because I have had many clients try to friend me on Facebook; so there seems to be that impulse both ways. However, it is the way it is for a reason. What I would love to see is more academics doing longitudinal studies looking at the outcomes of people who have been through the appeal process; whether they have been remitted and how they are coping, or if they have been affirmed, what happens to them and where their lives take them.
Do you believe it is important for university students to be involved in social justice issues in law? If so, why?
Absolutely! When I was at university I volunteered at North Melbourne Legal Centre and Fitzroy Legal Centre. Volunteering gives you so much insight into how much people deal or don’t deal with the law. I had many incredibly valuable experiences; I saw how little people understood the law and the problems that this created for them. I realised how privileged I was to be getting my legal education and to have this deep understanding of something that most people in society do not have, often to their own detriment. Volunteering at these CLCs reinforced for me how vital it is that we do have lawyers in society. We play an important supportive role, as often legal processes can be very esoteric and poorly understood. It can be hard at law school because the work load can be very heavy, but if students make time to volunteer it gives them the scope to see how the law operates.
How did you balance your time at law school?
When I started university, a friend’s mum gave me some very useful advice of which I did not follow, but I wish that I had. She said, “treat university like a job, if you work 9am till 5pm consistently, you won’t be pulling overnighters or working over the weekends.” She was absolutely right; if you structure your time like a work day, it means that you have time to volunteer, have a social life and have free time on the weekends. Instead, I drank a lot of coffee at two in the morning. If I had my time again, I would do it differently!
Describe your work experiences in Istanbul and the UK.
In 2004, I took a year of leave from the Department of Immigration and went to Crete. I learnt how to teach English as a Second Language in a month-long course. After the course, I went to Istanbul, got a job with Berlitz and had some amazing experiences there. It was really rewarding and a lot of fun. It gave me an insight into an interesting yet complex country. Along with volunteering, I would strongly recommend going overseas as it’s an invaluable experience.
Then, quite a few years later, as a part of our honeymoon, my wife and I ended our cycling tour across Europe in the UK. We were intending to work for the year, however, this was at the time of the GFC. I was fortunate to get a job as a lawyer at the Gas and Electricity Regulator. It was completely different to any law that I had done before, but again, if there’s anything that has characterised the jobs I have experienced, it is that they have been all about people. This job was all about the people because at that time there was this huge scandal about direct debit being taken from people. Often many elderly people felt that they had been taken advantage of; I listened to their concerns and then put them to the Gas and Electricity supply companies. These two years of experiences were incredibly enjoyable and shaped the way I work today.
There are employers who recognise that part of retaining people is about giving them an opportunity to go out and travel for work. Don’t think that once you are in the workforce you are stuck in the same job.
How much do you give credence to the phrase that haunts law students - “it’s all about who you know”? If students don’t have connections what should they be doing?
There is a real downside because it means that if people don’t have connections, then they don’t have the opportunities. It does seem to be the persistent way of the world, but it’s something we need to be conscious about. We need to provide connections to people that have come from less privileged backgrounds. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who you know, because if you can’t do the work, you won’t get the job. Hopefully at the end, the people who are the right fit for the job will get it. I think in law school I had this perception that judges, barristers, and lawyers were unapproachable, but now that I know them I have realised that they are incredibly generous with their time. So, if you don’t have initial connections, don’t be afraid to cold call people. It can be hard, but you’ll find that these individuals are very happy to help.
What has been your most valuable lesson learnt through your experiences with the law?
My most valuable lesson from years of law school and all of my professional experiences is to never forget that most people do not have the understanding of the law that you have. You need to honour that privilege by helping people in some way.