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The broken man who battled the State—and won

Madelaine Dickie -

Please note, this story contains the name of a person who has passed away.

During Christmas-time in 1957 an Aboriginal baby boy falls sick.

The anxious fatherâ€"carrying the baby in his armsâ€"searches for someone with a vehicle.

He finds neighbours who are willing to drive his son Bruce two hours to Adelaide Children's Hospital.

A couple of weeks after admission, no longer sick, baby Bruce is fostered to a non-Indigenous couple. There's no paperwork. No questions asked. No consent from Bruce's parents. Staff tell the couple the baby has been abandoned, neglected.

Bruce will never see his father again.

So starts A Stolen Life, The Bruce Trevorrow Case, a distressing story about the only member of the Stolen Generations to sue an Australian government for compensation and win.

It was written by Antonio Buti, a lawyer who prepared Stolen Generations submissions for the national inquiry that resulted in the Bringing The Home report and the current WA Labor MP for Armadale.

Bruce's story first caught Mr Buti's attention when it made headlines in 2007.

"Initially I wrote an article for a legal journal. Then I realised that the story needed a wider audience," Mr Buti said.

A move from legal academia to politics meant time was scarce, and all up, the book took Mr Buti nearly ten years.

"The story was always burning, and the desire was to complete it. Living in Western Australia, with the case occurring in South Australia, there were long periods of hiatus. But I had an obligation to the people I interviewed, including Bruce's wife and siblings, and I wanted to honour his legacy and their fight for justice."

Gently, and with great care, Mr Buti describes the violation of the fundamental rights of a 13-month-old baby, the devastation of public service malpractice, and government departments that move swiftly with zeal, but not compassion.

He articulates the profound effects the removal had on Bruce both as a child and an adultâ€"the sickness, depression, anxiety, insecurity and alcohol dependence.

Bruce is a man who doesn't belong to the white family who grew him up, or to the Aboriginal family from whom he was stolen.

He is a man who has endured many false dawns.

A Stolen Life moves from harrowing personal history to high drama in the courtroom.

In 1993, Bruce learns he may be able to sue the government for taking him away from his family. He contacts the native title unit of South Australia's Aboriginal legal service where he meets Tim Wooley. Bruce speaks to Wooley in a voice so soft Wooley must lean forward to hear.

 'I think they should compensate me; they should give me money for what they have done to me. They took me from my family, and from my people, the Ngarrindjeri people.'

Wooley stares at the sad, broken man in front of him. He is silent, wondering how to answer.

Bruce staggers into the silence, shattering it. 'What they did was wrong. Can you help me find out more about what they did to me? Can I sue them?'

Wooley refers Bruce to Joanna Richardson, manager of the civil unit at the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement on King Street in Adelaide. It's to be an auspicious meeting. Five years later, Richardson will tell Bruce that there's enough evidence to sue the State on his behalf. Her lead counsel will be the highly credentialed Julian Burnside QC.

By the time Bruce Trevorrow gets his day in court as part of a gruelling 38-day trial, he's on heart tablets, Panadeine Forte, Valium and antidepressants.

Mr Buti said when Bruce stepped into the witness box, it was without falsity or artifice.

"The fact that he sat in the witness box was very compelling. He was a broken man. Even the judge said the same thing ..."

In less capable hands, we might find ourselves stranded in a jungle of legalese. But Mr Buti has a gift for cutting down complex issues into straightforward terms. The trial never loses its quick and gripping tempo, or its hum of tension, despite the fact that we know the outcome.

In court, there's a need for a narrative, for a well-told story, and Mr Buti delivers, right up to Justice Gray's judgement.

The Justice found that Bruce was dealt with by the State without lawful authority in a manner that affected his personal wellbeing and freedom, that he was falsely imprisoned, and that he was the subject of breaches of the common law duty of care owed by the State. He ruled that the State must compensate Bruce for damages.

"Justice Gray's judgement was beautifully written, very poetic, but logical. It was a very human reading of the law, a proper reading of the law, and Justice Gray read the law as it should be read," Mr Buti said.

Later, Bruce will contact the lead counsel on his case, Julien Burnside QC, and ask him to write to Justice Gray on his behalf.

'[Bruce] wants him [the Justice] to know how much he appreciates the respect with which His Honour has treated him as a witness and as an Indigenous person. Throughout his damaged life, Bruce too often has presented as unlikeable and as emotionally detached from family and from those who would try to be his friend. Clearly though, at his core, those innate human values exist, and Justice Gray has reached them with this act of thoughtfulness in the midst of a trial that must operate according to procedure shaped by soulless bureaucracy.'

Was it worth it, for Bruce?

Mr Buti said it was.

"It was definitely worth it. He felt vindicated. He felt like finally someone had listened. It was a judicial acknowledgement of the abandonment and damage he felt," Mr Buti said.

The case's precedent value remains unclear, but it has been a catalyst for a reparations scheme in South Australia which allows claimants to seek compensation without enduring a long and expensive court process.

A Stolen Life should be read by students of law, or anyone interested in studying law; by every public servant working in areas of policy that affect First Nations people; by anyone with an interest in Australian history; by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike.

It is a devastating and important part of our truth-telling as a nation.

A Stolen Life was published by Fremantle Press this month and will be launched in Adelaide on August 12th.

By Madelaine Dickie

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