OpinionWhy law is a revitalisation sector for the city

CITY’S LEGAL INFRASTRUCTURE: “The justice system works best when it is part of the community it serves”. Picture: Jonathan CarrollWe need to take more notice of the law as a sector that generates a whole lot of good in the Hunter. The law is rarely spoken about as a revitalisation sector for Newcastle. Yet it holds great potential to drive jobs growth in the high value professional services arena – with, dare I say, more benefit to the city than a handful of crane operators lifting boxes from container ships.
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There are 880 practicing solicitors in the Hunter and 90 barristers. And there is a new courthouse in Newcastle, after years of lobbying to replace the decrepit pile on Church Street.

There is good reason to be proud of Newcastle’s criminal justice infrastructure. Trials in Newcastle arising from the royal commission into child sexual abuse zeroed in on local institutions, local perpetrators and local victims. Powerful figures were hauled back to the city to face justice. The justice system works best when it is part of the community it serves, not something operating in a far-off place, presided over by elites who live somewhere else.

A good reason the Hunter has reasonable criminal justice infrastructure is that we generate a lot of business. In 2017 the region recorded almost 7000 cases of malicious damage to property, over 23,000 incidents of theft, 1500 sexual offences, 2800 incidents of domestic assault and an equivalent number of non-domestic assault cases.Our region houses more than 1000 prisoners in the maximum security jail at Cessnock and the minimum security jail at St Heliers. Both jails are growing, the consequence of being on the doorstep of a five-million-person city needing cheap places to dump its outcasts.

Yet our region always throws up the good side of most things. Writing in the Herald as a journalist in 2014 – and now a practising criminal barrister in Newcastle – Stephen Ryan noted that of the 50 men and women appointed to the High Court since its first sitting in 1903, five have Hunter origins. This is more than the total contribution of WA, Tasmania and all n territories. Ourhigh court justices have been Maitland lad Herb ‘Doc’ Evatt (1930-1940); the Newcastle duo Alan Taylor (1952-1969) and Michael McHugh (1989-2005); Wingham’s Murray Gleeson (1998-2008); and current justice, Sandy Hollow’s Stephen Gageler, who was appointed in 2012.

Another positive contributor to the Hunter’s legal infrastructure is the University of Newcastle’s Law School. It spearheads the university’s shift to downtown Newcastle with its occupancy of the New Space building, the bookend to the civic and justice precinct on Hunter Street. This precinct is Newcastle’s only successful non-residential CBD development for decades.

A feature of the Law School is its community engagement. Its staff and students run the Newcastle Legal Centre and it isalso one of the nation’s leading legal research concentrations, judged by the n Research Council to be “world class”.

In a fortnight the Law School will assemble scholars and leading practitioners to discuss the transformation of Newcastle into a “restorative city”. The event will devise strategies to build social cohesion and healthy communities in the region. The rationale is simple: nurturing strong communities is the best way to tackle crime. The bonus is that enduring economic growth and prosperity share the same ingredients.

We need more of these intelligent, city-building interventions, and governments should be more supportive of them.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.

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