Reflecting on career after honour

Retired District Court judge Mary Ann Yeats has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia. Picture: Tom Rabe
Retired District Court judge Mary Ann Yeats has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia. Picture: Tom Rabe

She said she initially hesitated to accept appointment as Member of the Order of Australia on January 26 because her service to Aboriginal justice was not something she could have achieved alone.

‘I believe this honour should go to the Aboriginal people who worked to educate the judiciary; they are truly heroic,’ she said.

‘The real reason I decided to accept appointment was because it shows the importance of Aboriginal justice in Australia.

‘Looking to the future, we need to think more about healing than punishment.’

Mrs Yeats studied law at the University of WA shortly after she and her young family emigrated from Missouri to Perth in 1974.

‘I had worked for women’s rights, specifically in the League of Women Voters, and I saw that it was lawyers who had the real power to make change,’ she said.

‘After university, I was fortunate to work as a research officer for both Sir Ronald Wilson and the Honourable Kevin Parker while each was solicitor-general of WA.

‘I then worked in the Crown Law department until I was admitted to practice in 1982.’

Mrs Yeats said her concern that judges and magistrates were ‘sitting up on the bench without an adequate knowledge of Aboriginal law and culture’ drove her to improve cultural awareness. She said the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration was highly instrumental in her work.

‘It was through the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration that judicial officers throughout Australia were offered programs of education on Aboriginal law and culture by the national AIJA committee I convened,’ she said.

Among her many achievements, Mrs Yeats became the second WA woman to be appointed a District Court judge in 1993.

‘Being a judge is not an honour as much as an opportunity to be embarrassed much of the time,’ she said.

‘Everything you say or do is recorded and scrutinised, there is great responsibility.’