On September 14, 2023, Chief Justice Debra Mortimer announced her landmark judgment in favour of five former Jewish students of Brighton Secondary College (BSC) who were subjected to antisemitic bullying and harassment between 2013 and 2020. Brighton Secondary College principals, Richard Minack and Julie Podbury, were found to be negligent, and Mr Minack was found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act in failing to protect the students’ human rights. As announced late last month, Mr Minack has now resigned.
While the courage of the five boys and their families was crucial, without the determination and dedication of their young barrister, Adam Butt, this case would not have happened.
In 2020, Adam approached me to become an expert witness. In the subsequent years, I have been highly impressed, indeed amazed, at the high level of expertise, dedication and determination which he invested in this case.
Working on a pro bono basis for three years, Adam worked day and night to ensure the boys’ success. His effective cross-examination elicited confessions, where previously there was denial. He went beyond the legal arena, to emotionally support his young clients, who were so badly affected.
Mr Butt’s outstanding efforts have been recognised by the boys, their families and community leaders. For the boys he became a father figure, helping them to overcome their emotional trauma and find their way in life. Matthew Kaplan explains:
“Adam’s been the best possible advocate anyone could have ever asked for, representing us better than I could have ever dreamed of. I never thought it was possible to have the principal apologise to me after asking for it for nearly three years, so watching him apologise under Adam’s amazing cross-examination helped get closure for all of us involved.”
Liam Levy concurred, saying:
“Without Adam I don’t know where I would be with this case; he is not only a mentor but also an extremely close friend and I owe him so much … Adam has been the most incredible advocate.”
The parents expressed similar sentiments and could not thank Mr Butt enough. Janet Abadee, mother of the Kaplan boys, states:
“As a Jewish person, Adam gave more to the Jewish community than anyone has in decades … To take on the State of Victoria, which has unlimited funds and resources, but Adam did.”
Natalie Snelling, mother of Zack Snelling, expressed similar sentiments:
“The way Adam was able to support my son and myself through his line of questioning when giving evidence was reassuring and much appreciated. He was dedicated to the case to his core. [Adam also] put forward a cost-capping application to assist all of us and, in doing so, has prioritised the litigants over his own remuneration. We are forever grateful for his assistance.”
Similar tributes were paid by communal leaders. Daniel Aghion KC, JCCV president, commended Adam:
“His strategic efforts brought a difficult case to trial when other barristers and solicitors considered the matter too complex …
“Despite the considerable pressure upon him, Adam remained at the centre of this maelstrom, unflappable and unfailingly dedicated to his task of achieving justice for his clients … Adam’s cross-examination was particularly effective and of the highest quality.
“The Jewish community, and the Bar, owe Adam a very great debt for his work.”
Mark Leibler and Dr Colin Rubenstein of AIJAC have congratulated Adam:
“His unwavering and dedicated pursuit of justice will have a profound impact on all Jewish students in state-based schools by confirming their protections under the law.”
David Southwick MP also congratulated Adam’s outstanding work in acting substantially pro bono in the eight-week trial, which is the first Australian school case dealing with racial claims.
Dr Dvir Abramovich of the Anti-Defamation Commission awarded Mr Butt a Humanitarian Award, paying tribute to “Adam’s bravery and extraordinary service to the community in confronting the evil of antisemitism”.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry co-CEO Peter Wertheim gave insight into the level of dedication and determination required of Adam to fight this case against much better-resourced opponents. He said that Adam’s advice to his clients to seek a reciprocal cost-capping order to limit their exposure to any adverse costs order, was knowingly given against his personal financial interests: “In my opinion Adam acted in the highest traditions of the legal profession.”
During the trial, the feelings of the many community members in attendance were summed up by the late Harry Brooks, a Holocaust survivor, who said this before recently passing away:
“Adam, I think what you have done for the boys is beyond my understanding and I will applaud you forever in my life, as I consider you to be an absolute hero. And I haven’t had too many heroes in my life.”
Thanks to Adam’s efforts, the government has introduced several key policies and enhanced reporting systems and even a phone hotline. As an expert witness, it has been an honour and a privilege to work with Adam. We owe him a deep debt of gratitude.
Suzanne D Rutland – Professor Emerita at the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, University of Sydney – is a renowned and widely published Australian Jewish historian.