Ron Castan AM QC (1939-1999)

Ron Castan AM QC (1939-1999)

Ron Castan passed away at a relatively young age, but he left behind an enormous legacy in the field of human rights, and especially Indigenous rights.

Ron is best known for his leading role in the landmark Mabo native title case, which reversed the concept of Terra Nullius and secured land rights for many Indigenous people. By the time of the judgment in 1992, Ron and his colleagues had been running the litigation for a decade. According to Bryan Keon-Cohen QC, who also worked on the case, "it can be confidently said that without the different but vital contributions of both Eddie Mabo and Ron Castan, the Mabo cases would never have survived their ten-year torturous course - let alone succeeded".

Ron's commitment to Indigenous rights stretched back almost to the beginning of his career. In 1971, he was founding secretary of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, and in 1982 he appeared before the High Court in Koowarta v Bjelke-Peterson, another landmark Indigenous rights case that pre-dated Mabo. Even after the Mabo case, the fight was not over. In 1998, Ron found himself back in the trenches, negotiating with the Howard Government as it sought to roll back native title rights.

Ron also committed himself to human rights more broadly. He sat for a number of years as a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner and revitalised the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty Victoria) in the mid-1980s to take on the Hawke Government over the proposed Australia Card. Ron was an important member of the Australian Constitutional Commission from 1986-1988, working with Thomas Kenneally, Peter Garrett and Terry Purcell to produce the report on individual and democratic rights. Of working with Ron, Thomas Kenneally said "there was a sort of ruthlessness in him, a ruthlessness on behalf of justice".

Many other people benefited from Ron's involvement, including the human rights and independence movements of Tibet and East Timor and numerous individuals in need of assistance. According to his colleague Glenda McNaught, "his strong moral compass led him to pursue issues that were seen by many as a ‘lost cause'".

When Ron died in October 1999, the Monash University Law Faculty was in the early stages of setting up a human rights centre. It seemed obvious to those involved in the endeavour that the centre should be named after a man who had given so much of his life to advancing the cause of human rights.

Obituaries

Reflections