Re-imagining Women’s Role in Australian Society: Remembering Deborah Cass

Sometimes events take place which we wish could have been shared by those who are no longer embodied here with us. My research on the life and work of John Sinclair OA has touched on the family of Moss Cass, Australia’s first Environment Minister. His daughter Deborah, whose life ended all too soon, shared an interest with John Sinclair in how the law can be used to the benefit of people and planet. The following is my tribute to her in which I have drawn on an obituary by James Button for the Sydney morning herald and a recently published book edited by her colleague Kim Rubenstein.

Deborah Cass: Traversing the Divide: a look at the life and work of a brilliant Australian

In the light of the renewed focus on the position of women in Australian society, I want to recall the work of the late Deborah Cass (1960 – 2013), a woman to whom the results of the 2022 federal election may have brought heart and hope. A recent (2021) book edited by her friend and former colleague Kim Rubenstein examines the life and work of this brilliant Australian legal thinker. Traversing the Divide: Honouring Deborah Cass’s Contributions to Public and International Law was published by: ANU Press.

Deborah was the second child of Shirley and Moss Cass and she grew up in a family who believed strongly in the hopes for change that infused the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her father, Dr Moss Cass, was appointed by newly-elected Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam as Australia’s first minister for the environment in late 1972. Dr Cass visited K’gari (Fraser Island) early in his ministry at the invitation of the late John Sinclair, founder of the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation. There he swam in the iconic Lake Wabby and declared his commitment to preserving the natural environment of the island. John Sinclair recalls that the Cass family experienced the local feeling against conservation when Shirley Cass was refused service in the Island’s only shop on the grounds that, “You’re in with those Sinclairs!” Dr Cass was true to his word and was instrumental in setting up the Fraser Island Inquiry which ultimately led to the end of sand mining on the island.

After attending an experimental school and entering the workforce at a young age, Deborah enrolled to study law at Melbourne University, where she threw herself into student politics. She entered deeply into her law studies and was fascinated by the law’s power to shape people’s lives, and how this power was expressed through language – the words in statutes or in the mouths of judges.

Deborah Cass saw the law as politics by other means, a means to change the world. She worked with Tony Anghie on an international commission of inquiry into the worked-out phosphate lands of Nauru in the late 1980s. The work of this commission ultimately won compensation from the Australian government for damage done to the Pacific Island nation by phosphate mining.

Part 1 of the book deals with some of Deborah Cass’s work in constitutional law. She was passionate about equality for women and she addressed it in all aspects of her life, personally, politically and professionally. Kim Rubenstein recounts how her work was later used in advocacy about the representation of women in the 1998 Australian Constitutional Convention.

In her chapter entitled Traversing the Divides: Remembering Deborah Cass, colleague Hilary Charlesworth recalls:

A highlight for me was moving her admission to legal practice in the Supreme Court of Victoria: I felt proud to be introducing a candidate of such integrity and creativity into the legal profession. We overlapped later at ANU in Canberra, where Deborah taught for almost four years. She was not only a superb colleague, but a dedicated teacher and a great catalyst for ideas.

Deborah Cass took articles at a Melbourne firm after graduation but her interest in the philosophy and politics of law drew her back to study. In 1991 she became a senior tutor at Melbourne University where she met Gerry Simpson, a Scottish academic specialising in human rights law, who became her life partner.

In 1993, Cass became a lecturer at Australian National University before moving to Harvard to complete a doctorate in law. From there she was appointed to the London School of Economics, rising to become associate professor. In this period, she wrote several influential articles and books on constitutional and international law.

James Button in an obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, notes that:

Representation/s of Women in the Australian Constitutional System, co-authored with Kim Rubenstein, was the first work to examine the exclusion of women in both the drafting and the continuing interpretation of the constitution.

Part 3 examines Deborah Cass’s work on the World Trade Organization (WTO), the subject of her prize-winning book, The Constitutionalization of the World Trade Organization (Oxford University Press, 2005).

A cancer diagnosis in 2003 saw Deborah Cass receive treatment in the UK and three years later the family returned to Melbourne, believing she had little time left to live. Showing amazing fighting spirit, Cass continued to live and work for a further seven years, until her passing in 2013.

Charlesworth sums up her achievements:

She was a gifted constitutional lawyer, a path-breaking international lawyer and a shrewd critic of legal theory. Within the field of international law, unlike many of us, Deborah Cass ranged over many areas, becoming an internationally recognised expert on areas as diverse as natural resources, self-determination, international institutions and international trade law.

Deborah Cass was survived by partner Gerry and daughters Hannah and Rosa who carry on her generosity of spirit and aspirations for a better and fairer world.


Button, James (2013) Sydney Morning Herald)

Rubenstein, K (2021) ed. Traversing the Divide: Honouring Deborah Cass’s Contributions to Public and International Law. ANU Press Canberra.

Charlesworth, H. (2021) Traversing the divide: Remembering Deborah Cass

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