Hart felt

By Kate Mayor

Naomi Hart’s passion for history and debating has helped her as a lawyer working with Death Row prisoners.
Image of Naomi Hart

When Naomi Hart was ready for university, she chose to study at Sydney because of its History department. “It was ranked about fifth in the world when I was there. My experience really vindicated that decision, because every lecturer I had was devoted, and the range of choices available to me and the quality of teaching, and of other students was just extraordinary. I count myself very lucky.”

Hart, 25, later graduated with a law degree and during her time at the University was also a keen debater. She found lots of synergies between arts, law and debating. “Arts really teaches you to reach out and try and understand other people. The whole point of history is looking back across generations and trying to piece together elusive stories. “It’s really similar to law where you have to take on people’s cases, try and understand them, and tell those stories in court. There is a lot of overlap between history and law.”

So, too, with debating. “The University of Sydney Union takes the debating tradition very seriously. I debated every week at an internal, informal gathering called regionals and then I had the opportunity to debate all over the world – Canada, Oxford and Cambridge, China. The breadth of opportunity was fantastic.”

“They set you up in a state with death row prisoners and once you’re there, you’re working five days a week as a volunteer."

She is adamant that the skills she developed through debating provided a major boost to her work as a human rights lawyer. “Debating develops an ability to work with other people, the ability to articulate an argument, an ability to really take one side of a case whether or not you believe in it. Being able to advocate that other side rigorously is what debating is all about and that is directly transferable to when you become a lawyer. “

After gaining her Bachelor of Laws last year, Hart went to America to work with prisoners on death row. She applied to an Australian organisation called Reprieve, which has relationships with criminal defence offices throughout the country. “They set you up in a state with death row prisoners and once you’re there, you’re working five days a week as a volunteer."

Building a narrative

She says the work drew on her Arts degree more than she had expected. “It is really connected to (studying) history because often the way you get a death sentence reduced is by researching everything about a person to uncover any mitigating factors in the past – parental abuse, a drug addiction, poverty, a psychological trauma – and build an entire narrative.

“This is exactly what you have to do in history. So I felt that what I had done in my history degree, especially in Honours, was exactly what I had to do over in America.

Although she is now working in a Sydney commercial law firm, Allens Arthur Robinson, Hart says her internship opened her eyes to other possibilities. “Sometime in the future I definitely want to be working in areas related to constitutional law and international law and working to uphold individual rights.”

In recognition of the leadership Naomi showed as a student, she was awarded the University Convocation Medal last year for undergraduate achievement as part of the annual Alumni Awards program. “It was incredibly flattering. Going through the process of being nominated by one of my friends was humbling. Even more humbling, on the night, was being announced as the joint winner.”

It’s especially so when your whole family is steeped in the culture of Sydney. Hart’s parents, sister and brother all studied at the University, encompassing everything from physics to education, art history, social work, and peace and conflict studies. Was there any pressure to choose Sydney? “None at all.”