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Elizabeth Una (Liz) Gray (1956–1996)

by Heather Douglas

This article was published online in 2023

Liz Gray, no date

Liz Gray, no date

supplied by Natalie Gray

Elizabeth Una Gray (1956–1996), legal aid and human rights lawyer, was born on 14 May 1956 at Birchip, Victoria, second of three children of Victorian-born parents Gregory Gray and his wife Elizabeth (Beth), née Cantwell, both solicitors. After a few years in London as newly admitted lawyers, the Grays returned to Australia in November 1952 and settled in the Mallee region. Liz spent her early childhood there until 1965, when the family moved to Melbourne. She attended Genazzano FCJ College (1968–73) and was an active member of the school community: she played the flute in the orchestra, participated in debating, and was part of the school’s 1971 ‘It’s Academic’ television quiz show team, which won the State final and represented Victoria at the Australian championships.

Although the joint dux of science in 1973, Gray became, according to her sister Natalie, an ‘accidental lawyer’ (Keaney 2017, 20), having elected to study English, music, and law at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, LLB, 1980). After graduating, she chose to pursue community legal aid over private practice. She began her career at the Fitzroy Legal Service before joining the Legal Aid Commission of Victoria in 1982, where she spent the rest of her working life. Her first role was as legal officer at the LACV’s Glenroy office, where her duties included representing clients at the local Magistrates’ Court. In early 1985 she transferred to the family law division, but was quickly promoted to the position of deputy solicitor-in-charge of the Sunshine office. A few years later she transferred back to Glenroy, where she became solicitor-in-charge in 1990.

Gray served as a commissioner of the LACV (1989–92) and sat at various times on its community legal education, means test, and law reform committees. She was promoted to the role of deputy associate director of the general law division on 26 March 1991, first in an acting capacity before the appointment was made permanent in October 1995, and held this position with the organisation, which became Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) that December, until her death. During her time there she established a human rights program which placed a strong emphasis on providing legal advice and support to refugees, mental health clients, and those adversely affected by the social security system. As the VLA’s equal opportunity officer, she also helped establish a multilingual telephone advice service.

A ‘reluctant bureaucrat’ (Faine 1996), Gray enjoyed helping people and managed a heavy case load. She was particularly proud of the 1993 ‘studded belt case’ (Deing v. Tarola), in which she appealed a young man’s conviction of possession of a weapon under the Control of Weapons Act 1990. The Supreme Court found that the black leather belt with raised studs at the centre of the charge did not constitute a regulated weapon under the Act. The case is widely regarded as an excellent example of statutory interpretation and featured in legal studies courses for many years.

Gray was known for her humility and ‘tenderness and concern for justice’ (Liz Gray Memorial Service 1996). Possessing a musical talent that allowed her to play multiple instruments, she enjoyed the arts and fine food and valued spending time with her friends, family, and pets. She never married, and died on 13 June 1996 at Hawthorn after a short battle with ovarian cancer. Survived by her parents, brother Stephen, sister Natalie, and beloved cat, Patrick, Gray was buried on Phillip Island, where she had often holidayed. A Requiem Mass was held in her memory on 21 June 1996 at St Ignatius’ Church in Richmond. In her eulogy, the barrister Fran O’Brien recalled that her ‘quiet understated demeanour and wry humour … cloaked an incisive mind and a steely determination’ (Liz Gray Memorial Service 1996).

The Genazzano class of 1973 arranged for a plaque to be laid in the college gardens which testifies that ‘Elizabeth continued her outstanding academic achievements and chose a career as a lawyer devoting herself to the cause of community legal aid.’ In 2017 Gray’s family, friends, and colleagues established a scholarship in her name at the University of Melbourne Law School. Reflecting her core values, it provides ongoing support to financially disadvantaged students from Indigenous Australian or refugee backgrounds.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Faine, Jon. ‘The Lawyer Who Became Defender of the Underdog.’ Age (Melbourne), 14 June 1996, A16
  • Fraser, Jennifer. Personal communication
  • Genazzano. Kew, Vic.: Genazzano FCJ College, 1971
  • Genazzano. Kew, Vic.: Genazzano FCJ College, 1973
  • Gray, Natalie. Personal communication
  • Keaney, Bess. ‘A Lasting Legacy.’ MLS News, no. 18 (November 2017): 20
  • Liz Gray (Elizabeth Una Gray) Funeral Memorial Service, St Ignatius Church, Richmond, 21 June, 1996. [Melbourne]: Gray Family, 1996. Held at Melbourne Law School Library
  • Mangan, Mary, and Catherine Lamble. Personal communication

Citation details

Heather Douglas, 'Gray, Elizabeth Una (Liz) (1956–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gray-elizabeth-una-liz-32936/text41025, published online 2023, accessed online 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Liz Gray, no date

Liz Gray, no date

supplied by Natalie Gray

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

14 May, 1956
Birchip, Victoria, Australia

Death

13 June, 1996 (aged 40)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (ovarian)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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