Tracy Fantin

Gordonvale, Queensland, Australia
Barrister, Lawyer and Solicitor

Tracy Fantin is a Cairns based barrister and mediator who practises in planning and environment, administrative, employment and discrimination, succession and commercial law. She has worked on important coronial inquests and has experience working with Indigenous organisations and in native title.

Born and raised near Cairns, Fantin completed her education at Gordonvale State High School in 1982. Keen to undertake a combined Arts/Law degree, she moved to Canberra and graduated BA LLB (Hons) from ANU in 1987. She was admitted to practice as a solicitor in NSW in 1988 and practised in Sydney and London before returning to Cairns in 1994 where she became a partner and then consultant with local firm, Morrow Petersen Solicitors. She was called to the Bar in 2005. Fantin served as a sessional member of the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal for six years (2003-2009) and the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal for two years (2009-2011). She was a council member of the Bar Association of Queensland in 2014-2015 and is a member of the Australian Bar Association Diversity and Equality Committee.

Fantin has a history of involvement with community and advocacy organisations. She has served as a board member of Australian Women Lawyers (2004-2007), Women Lawyers Association of Queensland (2004-2007), Arts Law Centre of Queensland (1996-2001), Cairns Community Legal Centre and local arts organisations, and is a longstanding member of the Queensland Environmental Law Association and the Environmental Defender's Office of Northern Queensland.

In 2016, Tracy Fantin was named the WLAQ Regional Woman Lawyer of the Year, in recognition of her promotion of women in the legal profession and her contribution to community organisations.

Tracy Fantin was interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Trailblazing Women and the Law Oral History Project. For details of the interview see the National Library of Australia CATALOGUE RECORD.

A member of a stellar graduate cohort from the Australian National University Law School and Burgmann College whose members now include Judges, tribunal members, academics and Crown Solicitors, Tracy Fantin was the beneficiary of a progressive, liberal education at ANU in the 1980s. Her story is important because it highlights regional difference in a national story, the importance of free tertiary education to establishing diversity in the legal community, and the vital roles progressive thinking (and funding) play in creating equitable access to justice and education for members of the community at large. Fantin's experience of combining a successful career at the bar with motherhood also adds texture to the national story of 'gender trouble' in this area of practice, regardless of the jurisdiction.

Born and raised on a sugar cane farm in far north Queensland, Tracy Fantin was the first in her family to complete any education beyond secondary school. Her father, the son of Italian migrants, only attended primary school. Her mother left school after year 9. She 'forged her own way', assisted by supportive parents, an informed high school career guidance officer and free education introduced by the Whitlam federal government. Her parents would have done all they could to find a way to fund her tertiary education, but the generous Austudy provisions available in the 1980s to rural and regional students who had no option but to travel to attend university, along with the free tuition, assured it. The importance of free tertiary education to ensuring opportunities for first generation tertiary educated, regional students like herself, cannot be overstated.

Given that she had never travelled to Brisbane or Canberra, and that ANU offered combined degrees in law, while University of Queensland didn't, Fantin chose ANU. 'It was the best thing that could have happened.' The law school was a progressive faculty and she was surrounded there by a group of people from a variety of places and backgrounds, many of whom she remains good friends with. Unlike the universities in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, there were fewer established cliques amongst the cohort because so many of them had come from somewhere else, often with the express purpose of removing themselves from those cliques. There was also less emphasis on old school ties and private education. 'It was terrific,' she says. 'I was very fortunate to quickly make a very close group of friends from completely different backgrounds, who were bright and interested in things.' They came together because, she says, 'we shared the same values'.

Those shared values included a commitment to providing access to legal services to those traditionally excluded from them. While studying in Canberra and later working in Sydney at a firm called Sly and Weigall (now Deacons), she volunteered at a number of community legal services. On her way overseas, where she ultimately worked for as a solicitor for London Regional Transport, she made a point of attending a meeting in Cairns of people who were interested in establishing a local regional Community Legal Centre.

As it turned out, she did return to Cairns in 1994 and linked up with a progressive group of lawyers from all around the country, who came to live in Cairns in the mid 1990s. They established the first Community Legal Centre in Cairns, initially on a voluntary basis and then secured funding for it and became its first committee of management. They gained funding over a number of years to expand the service. In a political environment where legislative changes such as the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act were introduced, funding was also made available to support new, community based services. Throughout the 1990s, says Fantin, 'Cairns went from having no Community Legal Services at all to having a women's [service], a generalist one, a disability discrimination one and an environmental one'. There was 'a lot of enthusiasm for reform' made possible through the commitment and support of people who had been exposed to community services and progressive thinking in other places. Political will, to see these organisations funded and established, was an important part of the process, too.

Fantin has long been involved with services supporting Indigenous people, the arts and the environment. In the 1990s she worked extensively with local Aboriginal land councils, indigenous organisations and arts organisations. She later became a board member of Australian Women Lawyers and the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland and remains involved with the Queensland association in an informal capacity. Like most women barristers, she is deeply concerned by the yawning gender pay gap that exists and believes that organisations like AWL and WLAQ play a vital role in advocacy in this area - for instance, in supporting and promoting the Equitable Briefing Policy.

Working in a regional centre adds a layer of complexity to professional practice. Fantin stresses that networking, and expanding experience beyond the local context, is vital, regardless of gender, for the reputation of regional barristers. She practises in other regional centres and Brisbane and her expertise in the area of environment and planning law has helped her to maintain and promote her own reputation against the forces of metropolitan superiority. The reality is, however, that unless regional barristers maintain connections and networks with colleagues in the metropolitan centres, they are presumed not to be 'up to standard intellectually'. This regional 'cringe' can be more of a challenge than gender barriers.

Furthermore, the bar is a family unfriendly place to work, especially for those with young children. She acknowledges that the nature of the work means that the hours don't fit into a neat timetable, but observes that other jurisdictions have taken steps to introduce some practices that make combining work and family life easier. Nevertheless, 'attrition rates at the bar are still a big problem,' she says, and deferring or taking time out to have children has career consequences that male barristers, no matter how engaged with their young families they might be, do not confront. 'Given that women have been graduating from law school in greater numbers than men … for probably close to twenty years now,' she says, the fact that women still comprise only about 18% of members of the bar 'doesn't translate'. More needs to be done, because good women are being lost to the profession.

Tracy Fantin is related to the famous anti-fascist activist, Francesco Fantin, who was deeply involved in the Queensland history of the 'Red North' as it unfolded in the area she now lives in. She grew up on the farm he and his brother, her grandfather, established in the 1920s. Having moved away for many years, she has now returned to live on the farm where she grew up, and to which she feels a deep sense of connection. She suspects this connection to heritage, environment and sense of place explains her interest and expertise in the areas of environment and planning law, and is part of why she loves living there. 'I feel that connection to the environment…really strongly,' she says. 'I draw a lot of comfort from it.'

Sources used to compile this entry: Tracy Fantin interviewed by Kim Rubenstein in the Trailblazing Women and the Law oral history project, 2015, 6930741; National Library of Australia, Oral History and Folklore Collection.

Prepared by Nikki Henningham (with Tracy Fantin)