Woman of steel

Justice Melissa Perry talks about her Greek-Cypriot origins, her influences in life, and the advice she has to give to younger ones that aspire to excel in the field of law

Born and raised in Adelaide, Justice Melissa Perry graduated with honours from the University of Adelaide before going on to complete both a Masters degree and a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Thereafter, the newly titled ‘Dr Perry’ returned to Australia to embark upon what would become a remarkable career that has spanned over twenty years of practice at the South Australian and New South Wales Bar. As a barrister and a Queen’s Counsel, Dr Perry specialised in appellate advocacy, public law and native title. In more recent years she has also managed to find time to serve in the Royal Australian Air Force, where she currently holds the rank of Squadron Leader.
On 23 September 2013, Justice Melissa Perry was sworn in as a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia. Her Honour’s appointment to the Bench not only recognised her decades of distinguished practice and contribution to the Australian legal profession, but also saw her proudly follow in the footsteps of her father, the late John Perry AO QC, former Justice of the Supreme Court of South Australia.
N.K.: I understand that your grandfather was a Greek-Cypriot. Could you please tell me about your family’s roots and, in particular, how your family came to settle and succeed in Australia?
Justice Melissa Perry: I never really knew my grandfather as he died when I was about 6 months old but he gave me my name, Melissa, which is of course a Greek name meaning bee or honey. My grandfather’s name was ‘Pieris’ but he anglicised it on his migration in the early 1920s – which was something that my father said he regretted ever since he was old enough to understand. But my grandfather had changed his name as he wanted to be regarded as Australian and he wanted his family to be Australian, and at that time, there were very few Greek people here and there wasn’t the same tolerance or understanding of different cultures. My grandfather was from Famagusta in Cyprus and, so far as we know, he was from a sea-faring family and came straight to Adelaide to settle. I can only imagine that my grandfather’s motivation in migrating here was simply to seek a better life and so he shared, no doubt, the same dreams as many of Australia’s migrants. He worked at the wharves in Adelaide until his hands were very badly injured in an accident at work, losing several fingers. Workplace safety at that time was a very undeveloped concept and in a curious twist of fate – or perhaps not – much of my father’s practice as a lawyer involved acting for migrants who were also casualties of accidents at work, many of them Greek and Italian migrants. He felt very passionate about representing them. My father’s circumstances growing up were very modest. He was quite imaginative about raising his own pocket money as a child, including delivering newspapers, leading cattle around the ring at the Adelaide Show, bringing home a bucket of milk from the prize cows for his mother at the end of the day, and even busking on one occasion on his much loved violin with another little boy playing the trumpet outside the Goodwood Park Hotel until his father who was imbibing of a drink at the bar marched him home! From these modest beginnings, my father was to rise to a judge of the Supreme Court of South Australia where he served the public in that role for 20 years. But it was really through my mother who was not Greek but had a great love of Greek culture, history and ancient mythology, that my father came later in life to learn about and identify with his Greek heritage, and to be proud of it.
N.K.: What are your feelings about your Hellenic background? In what ways have your roots shaped your world view?
Justice Melissa Perry: Through my parents and particularly my mother, I grew up very proud of my Greek ancestry. I loved Greek myths and had a great interest in learning about Greek history. I embraced some of the Greek philosophies and concepts, and was fascinated by ancient Greece as the cradle of civilisation, as it has rightly been called. Even as a little girl, so proud was I of my heritage that I would steel myself to confront any challenge because I was Greek. While my father may not have grown up in a traditional Greek family environment, both of my parents had that wonderful sense of hospitality – that selfless generosity towards guests – which is very much a part of the Greek tradition. It was, I think, in my father’s genes. My parents loved entertaining and there was never anything that was too much trouble for their guests. Since I have been in Sydney, I have also been made very welcome here by the Cypriot community Club through my friendship with Michael Christodoulou, who is former President of the Cyprus Community Club of NSW and current President of the Federation of Cypriot Communities of Australia and New Zealand and who I very much admire. He has been tremendously encouraging and supportive.
N.K.: What made you decide to study and practice law?
Justice Melissa Perry: Initially I was in fact quite determined not to practice law, primarily because I saw how hard my father worked. However, after completing work experience in barrister’s chambers, I feel in love with the excitement of the courtroom and the collegiality between members of the Bar. And I think that I also have a strong sense of social justice, so that having the opportunity to represent people – to stand up for them – was something that really appealed to me.
N.K.: What advice do you have to offer to young people, particularly young women, aspiring to excel in a legal career?
Justice Melissa Perry: Approach your life with imagination and don’t be afraid to dream. Be passionate about what you do. Work hard, be patient; there are no shortcuts. And be resilient. While that is good advice to all who aspire to a legal career, it is perhaps more so in the case of women. You must be robust. Don’t accept limits on what you can achieve, and be bold. And be true to yourself. Don’t try and fit someone else’s template. Finally – that’s a lot of tips I know – but as lawyers, it is important to understand that our work impacts directly on peoples’ lives and often on the lives of very vulnerable people. And even the very act of standing up for someone in court and acting on their behalf in their best interests can be very empowering and important to them, even if they do not ultimately succeed.
N.K.: What ambitions do you hold in assuming your new role as a Judge?
Justice Melissa Perry: Judges don’t have ambitions! If we were to aspire to something greater for ourselves, then Judges might start making decisions because they think it might help their career instead of deciding cases impartially. So we must put our personal ambitions aside. That said, my ‘ambition’ is to aspire to do the very best that I can in my new role. Of course, as a “baby judge” I’m very motivated and I’m sure I’ll never lose that. But I am in a process of transition. Although I am more limited in the things that I can do whilst in judicial office, I accepted the position as a fresh challenge and have been warmly welcomed by my new peers. I aim to continue to pursue my work with the RAAF; to mentor university students and young practitioners which was an aspect of my work at the Bar that I loved; and to continue to publish and speak on areas of particular interest to me in the law.
N.K.: You are most likely the first woman in Australia of Greek-Cypriot background to be appointed to the Federal Court of Australia. How do you feel about this?
Justice Melissa Perry: I’ve been thinking about this question since you foreshadowed it and, although I wouldn’t want to be quoted as confirming that fact to be true, I am not aware of another female Greek-Cypriot having been appointed to the Federal Court. That being said, I am nonetheless in very good company with other judges of Hellenic ancestry on other courts including Chief Justice Kourakis of the Supreme Court of South Australia. It is a great honour to be asked to serve as a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia. I hope that my father’s story and my story show that no matter how modest your beginnings, there really is no reason why in this society we cannot all achieve something that is capable of inspiring the next generation.
N.K.: I understand that you are a Squadron Leader in the RAAF. Could you tell me about how you came to join the RAAF and what your role is?
Justice Melissa Perry: My role with the RAAF Legal Specialist Reserves will change now that I am a judicial officer, but there is a strong tradition of judges continuing to serve with the Australian Defence Force and I am delighted that I continue with the RAAF. I really joined because I wanted a new challenge and to pursue something that would take me out of my comfort zone. The service and training component attracted me to the position and the opportunity to pursue my love of international law in a new context. I was also very attracted by the collegiality that exists in the ADF. I also think that it is very inspiring that people are prepared put their lives on the line for their country and their colleagues, and consider anything that we can do as lawyers to assist them is a good thing. Although I believe that I have adjusted relatively well to the RAAF reservist’s lifestyle, that theory was put to the test this past weekend when I attended a RAAF training session out at Richmond. Although I missed out on jumping into the flight simulator, I can tell you that I was feeling quite green as we lifted off in one of the RAAF Hercules heavy airlift planes!
N.K.: To finish, aside from the law, I have been told that your family are also quite musically gifted. What role has music and the arts played in your life?
Justice Melissa Perry: I was fortunate to grow up in a family where music was a seamless part of everyday life. It was unthinkable not to play an instrument – not to have art and music in your life – and my particular forte was the piano which I still play. To learn to love an instrument or just to love music is a great gift for a parent to give.
*Parts of this interview were provided to the Greek Language Program of SBS Radio.