Long-standing Sir Zelman Cowen Centre (SZCC) leader Professor Kathy Laster has stepped aside as director to focus on her role as Lead Investigator in the Ngarnga Nanggit (Wisdom of Elders) — an intergenerational oral history of Victoria’s Koori Courts funded by the Australian Research Council.
Under Professor Laster’s six-year tenure as director, the SZCC has become a respected and recognised leader in continuing and executive legal education for lawyers, executives, government, and community leaders, as well as a thought leader in research, with a particular focus on law and cultural diversity.
The Centre welcomes Professor William (Bill) MacNeil, an Adjunct Professor in the College of Law & Justice as its interim director.
Professor MacNeil said Professor Laster’s insight, savvy, imagination and flair had put the SZCC on the VU, Melbourne and Australian maps.
Her capacity to identify and highlight topical issues of importance to the community and the legal profession is best demonstrated in the development of the annual Sir Zelman Cowen Centre Oration. Since its inauguration in 2017, the Oration has become a touchstone event for the legal profession, featuring expert international and national thought-leaders on topics of ground-breaking significance.
Orators have included:
- renowned UK legal futurist Professor Richard Susskind OBE
- Beth Noveck (former Deputy Chief Technology Officer to US President Barack Obama) on CrowdLaw and Open Justice
- the Hon Kenneth Haine, AC, QC on Trust, Confidence and Public Institutions
- Professor Larissa Behrendt on The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 30 years on - Where to Now?
Other major achievements under her direction include developing and hosting:
- two international Online Dispute Resolution Conferences in 2016 and 2018
- a Faith-based Governance Conference in 2017
- a series of symposiums and colloquiums including Future of Universities in the 2020s in partnership with the Mitchell Institute in August 2019 as part of a suite of events to mark the centenary of the birth of Sir Zelman Cowen.
Focus on connection between law & community
The SZCC’s strong partnerships with industry, government and community are underpinned by a clear focus on enhancing community understanding of the law, and supporting community engagement between the legal sector and the community. This has resulted in several highly successful programs including:
- an inaugural County Court Engagement Day event in 2018 in partnership with the County Court of Victoria
- the award-winning Aspire Leadership program for young Muslim leaders
- the Good Beginnings project focused on prevention of family violence developed in partnership with Benevolence Australia.
The ARC grant for the Ngarnga Nanggit project marks an especially significant point in the SZCC’s development, recognising the quality and importance of the research topic in a highly competitive national program as well as the Centre’s capacity to undertake high-quality, original research. Professor Laster’s work in successfully building this capacity sets the stage for her next role as the project’s Lead Investigator, guided by an Indigenous-led Advisory Board and working alongside Adjunct Professors Richard Broome AM and Anne Wallace, and two student investigators, Ms Cassandra Seery and Mrs Michelle Gissara.
In addition to academic outputs, Ngarnga Nanggit will result in an International First Nations Justice Conference in 2023, a touring exhibition, and a suite of educational resources for schools. It marks a further stage in the evolution of the SZCC, extending its focus on the interaction between law and cultural diversity, and building capacity among young Aboriginal researchers.