John Ellis awarded 2014 National Civil Justice Award
24th Oct 2014
Each year the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) receives a number of outstanding nominations for the annual Civil Justice Award and 2014 was no different. This year the person that stood out for their unwavering diligence, passion, vision and resilience was lawyer John Ellis.
It is no exaggeration to say that John Ellis has become a leader in the fight to make the Catholic Church and other institutions accountable for the actions of its clergy and staff. Not only was his personal litigation a catalyst triggering the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he continues through his ongoing work as a lawyer to connect with and inspire survivors.
Mr Ellis’ landmark legal battle with the Catholic Church culminated in 2007, with the New South Wales Court of Appeal ruling that the trustees holding the assets of a church diocese cannot be sued as they are not responsible for the diocese’s activities. Special leave to the High Court on the matter was rejected. The apparent immunity of the Church from suit has since become known as the “Ellis Defence”, which has become synonymous with the legal hurdles facing litigants attempting to hold the Church liable for past wrongs.
Although Mr Ellis’ personal journey through the courts did not ultimately hold the Church legally responsible, his dedicated advocacy successfully shed light on the legal mechanisms used by institutions to escape liability. These may include generating delays and the lengthy cross-examination of survivors.
Subsequent calls for accountability brought about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with Mr Ellis’ experiences acting as a case study. In giving evidence, he again illuminated how the response of the Catholic Church to allegations of sexual abuse has been inconsistent with its stated aims of providing ‘just and compassionate healing’ to survivors - his experiences demonstrate that this objective applies only to those who have pursued relief under the ‘Towards Healing’ process, despite the fact this is an alternative to litigation. As the Royal Commission has revealed this unsatisfactory response and handling of complaints has engendered systematic abuse and cover-ups, only now being addressed through the work of the Commission.
Mr Ellis now continues to represents hundreds of victims of sexual abuse, working to ensure they have the best possible chance of receiving the justice they deserve. He has opened a legal practice with his wife, Nicola, where they have developed processes for resolving abuse claims against the Church and other institutions while remaining sensitive and accommodating of their clients’ interests and needs. The ALA has no doubt that John acts as a beacon of hope for his clients, with his passion inspiring others to be brave, as he was, in their fight for justice.
Ultimately, John Ellis' work contributes to a legal discourse based upon compassion, accountability and protection of the vulnerable.
In presenting him with the award at the ALA National Conference, national president Andrew Stone stated that “[h]e has proven…that he will not be crushed or defined by his experiences, but instead will rise to every challenge. John Ellis is a true inspiration to advocates of justice and survivors alike".