Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside was born Julian William Kennedy Burnside in 1949. He is well known for his work as a barrister in Australia, as well as a human rights and refugee advocate, and author. His legal practice is principally in commercial litigation, trade practices and administrative law. He is also known for his strong opposition to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and has provided legal counsel in a wide variety of high-profile cases. In 2009, Burnside was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) "for service as a human rights advocate, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers, to the arts as a patron and fund-raiser, and to the law."


In 2004 Burnside was awarded the Human Rights Law Award by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and sponsored by the Law Council of Australia for pro bono legal work for asylum seekers and for his work in establishing Spare Lawyers for Refugees. Also in 2004, he was elected an Australian Living Treasure. In 2006 he was inducted as an honorary member of the Monash University Golden Key Society. In 2007 he received the Australian Peace Prize from the Peace Organisation of Australia. In 2014 he was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize from the Sydney Peace Foundation.

Writing and commissions

Burnside is an accomplished author. He has written several successful publications on law, human rights and philology. In addition to his work in the law, he is a patron of numerous arts organisations. He regularly commissions classical music compositions and sculptures, and is Chair of two arts organisations.


Burnside grew up with his mother, his sister and brother. His father was absent from the home a lot of the time and permanently, from the time Burnside was 12 years old. His brother died in a car accident at the age of 20.


Burnside married in 1974, and his daughter was born in 1981. The couple divorced, and he married his second wife, the artist Kate Durham in 1998. Since 2001, Durham and Burnside have shared their home with refugees. Mosa arrived at the age of 10 or 11 and the couple have put him through school and are now supporting him through university.


Burnside was born in Melbourne and attended Melbourne Grammar School where he did well, though he did not enjoy his time there. He went on to study law and economics at Monash University. His ambition was to be a management consultant, until he was chosen to represent Monash at the Australia and New Zealand intra-varsity mooting (a competition that simulates a court hearing in which participants analyse a problem, research the relevant law, prepare written submissions, and present oral argument) and won the Blackstone Cup as best individual speaker. At the drinks afterwards, the adjudicator Sir Richard Wild, Chief Justice of New Zealand told Burnside, "You should go to the Bar." Sir Wild was the most important person Burnside had ever met, so thought it wise to follow the advice. It was decades later that the thought occurred to him that he may have meant 'Go and get another glass of wine'. Burnside’s entire career could be founded on a misunderstanding.

Burnside obtained a Bachelor of Economics in 1972 and a Bachelor of Laws in 1973.

Professional career

Burnside was admitted as a barrister of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1976, and appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1989. His main work revolves around commercial litigation, administrative law and trade practices. He made, and continues to make, his money as a barrister appearing for wealthy clients.

Alongside his commercial law practice, Julian has also developed a distinguished public law practice. He also appears regularly in both first instance and appellate proceedings in the Supreme Court, and the Federal Court in Victoria and across other states. He also appears in the High Court of Australia.

Burnside became involved with refugee issues during the Tampa stand-off, because he believed human beings should not be held hostage on the deck of a steel ship in the tropical sun.

Julian's landmark cases include successfully appearing for the Plaintiff in Trevorrow v. South Australia. It was this case that, for the first time, led a court to recognise membership of the 'Stolen Generation' as a legal basis for compensation.

In 1998 Burnside acted for the Maritime Union of Australia in its battle with Patrick Corporation during the “Australian waterfront dispute”, one of Australia's most severe and longest industrial relations controversies. The case went to the High Court of Australia, which eventually found in favour of the Union, although there were certain conditions. Burnside says this was one of his most memorable cases, convincing him that the survival of reasonable and responsible union representation is crucial if there is to be justice in the workplace.

Burnside has represented some of Australia's wealthiest people, including Alan Bond and due to these high-profile cases, he became well known in the legal and broader community as a commercial lawyer.

Pro bono work

Having become established as a lawyer, Burnside took on more pro bono legal work related to human rights issues. He acted for Victoria's chief civil liberties organisation in an action against the Australian Government over the Tampa affair and strongly criticised John Howard's Government for its decision to compulsory detain asylum seekers arriving in Australia. With his wife, Kate Durham, Burnside set up Spare Rooms for Refugees and Spare Lawyers for Refugees, programs which provided free accommodation and legal representation for refugees in Australia.

Although busy with his voluntary work, Burnside maintained his practice as a commercial litigator, appearing in many major class actions, trade practices, and general commercial cases.

Indigenous Australians

Over time, Burnside has become known as one of Australia's leading advocates with regards to Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and the protection of human rights.

Burnside has earned an excellent reputation for his work on several major cases on behalf of Indigenous Australians. He is most well know for acting for Bruce Trevorrow, a member of the Indigenous stolen generation. Trevorrow sued the South Australian Government for having removed him from his parents. For the first time in Australian legal history, an Australian government was found liable, and the court awarded damages of AUD500,000 to Mr Trevorrow.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

Burnside has stated that if someone is deterred from seeking safety in Australia, and prefer instead to stand their ground and face the Taliban, and if their persecutors kill them, “they're just as dead as if they'd drowned. The only difference is they die differently and Australia’s conscience isn't troubled by it.” He has also said "Why do we feel good about stopping the boats? In the last 15 years, more than 90 percent of boat people have, in our assessment, been found to be refugees and entitled to get in. We know that people who risk their lives at sea to reach safety are brave, use initiative and are likely escaping the same extremists Australia are fighting in the Middle East. So, why is keeping them out regarded as a good thing?" Across the international community, Australia is seen as a country that uses militaristic force in response to requests for asylum.