Bibi Sangha is Associate Professor in the College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University.
She trained at Middlesex University and London School of Economics, and has practiced law in the UK, Malaysia and Australia.
While her academic interests span contract, commercial and corporate law, she has also gained recognition for her work on miscarriages of justice and related law reform.
I came from legal practice in Malaysia to take up a legal academic position with the Faculty of Law at the Australian National University in Canberra. I then moved to the Law School here at Flinders University.
Highlights and Impact
My initial research was in contract and commercial law. After I started working at Flinders University I was encouraged to look into wrongful convictions. In collaboration with Dr Bob Moles, our research discovered that the Chief Forensic Pathologist in South Australia for 27 years had not been formally qualified in the field of forensic pathology and was not able to certify cause of death in forensic cases. He had conducted over 10,000 autopsies and his findings had helped to secure over 400 criminal convictions. The legal cases in which he had appeared were almost certainly open to challenge, and our research breakthrough had brought that fact to light.
Our lead case was the wrongful conviction of Henry Keough, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison for the 1994 murder of Anna-Jane Cheney. The Court of Appeal could not reopen the previous unsuccessful appeal or hear a further appeal. The High Court could not admit the fresh evidence that showed Henry Keogh had been the victim of a wrongful conviction. The only way back to the court was to obtain the consent of the Attorney-General. But if the case had the potential to embarrass the police, prosecutors or forensic services, for which the Attorney-General was responsible, then consent would be refused. And so it proved; our petitions and submissions were all rejected.
Knowing we had evidence that pointed to a wrongful conviction, and knowing that the legal system had closed off all avenues to a proper consideration of the matter, I thought: “There must be a way to put things right.” As lawyers we could not accept that a person had been wrongfully convicted and we were powerless to do anything about it.
So we put a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The AHRC agreed with our submission that the criminal appeal system had failed to comply with Australia’s international human rights obligations and had done so for over 30 years since Australia had signed the treaty. The AHRC wrote a report to that effect and sent it to the parliamentary committee, which recommended the establishment of a new statutory right of appeal. The Attorney-General agreed, and legislation was passed. On this occasion, fortune favoured the brave.
Our Henry Keogh case was able to be taken directly to the Court of Appeal. He was subsequently released from prison after serving over 20 years.
Challenges and Proudest Moments
One of my proudest moments was hearing the court say to Henry Keogh ‘You are free to go now’ after he had been in prison for over 20 years, and realising that without the new right of appeal, he would otherwise have spent the rest of his life in prison. We saw a gap in the law and we wrote about it, as academics do. We tried to encourage the lawmakers to take us seriously. Some did and we got this outcome.
The work we do can bring substantial negative feedback. Even today, we have senior politicians saying that Keogh is guilty, or that we cause distress to the lives of innocent victims of terrible crimes. I manage those concerns by reminding myself of my duty to uphold the law, to respect due process, and to advocate for those unable to do it for themselves. It is a privilege but also a daunting responsibility to speak truth to power.
I’d like to be remembered as a person who was grateful for the opportunities she had and who sought to utilise them in the service of others. Knowing that our research can bring about substantial changes that really benefit the lives of others is a great feeling. Having its significance acknowledged by people you admire is good too.
Justice Michael Kirby wrote to us and said: “You managed to do something that I couldn’t do while I was sitting in the Court of Appeal all those years. If you never do anything else in your public life this achievement could stand the test of time.”
Advice to Younger Researchers
Be mindful that sometimes, people in authority and who have senior positions may not always be as straightforward as they appear. We see that more today with the banks, with institutional abuse. It comes through in our legal work. People do not always play by the rules and you cannot judge a book by its cover.
Find something you really care about and which you think is really important. There are wonderful opportunities for travel and career development, but the satisfaction of knowing you did something significant is worth striving for. Believing in the importance of what you are doing will sustain you through the worst of the challenging times.