Home  |  Services  |  Testimonials  |  Our People  |  Articles & Links  |  Contact

A fight for the downtrodden

Author: Anna Patty | Publication: Sydney Morning Herald

A terrible family accident was the catalyst that helped turn a librarian into a determined legal eagle, writes Anna Patty. Ros Everett was five when a head-on car crash outside Bourke set her course for life. It nearly severed her father's foot. It was not only catastrophic for her family but it turned her into a lawyer, eventually.

It explains why the former librarian, suburban lawyer and fifth female president in the NSW Law Society's 130-year history is so passionate in her opposition to the state government's changes to the workers' compensation scheme.

"My father couldn't work again, so my mother had to find work as a domestic in the local hospital. With four children, our family really struggled," she says.

In 2012, the O'Farrell government slashed benefits for injured workers and abolished claims for injuries suffered during a journey to or from work. Her father, Doug Wilson, "would not have received a cent of compensation" under current laws.

But back then a young barrister, Frank McGrath, who went on to be a chief judge of the Compensation Court, helped Everett's father make a workers' compensation claim.

"Dad used the money for a deposit on a very little fibro home for our family in Wellington. My mother Beryl still has that house today," says Everett. Happily, she got the chance to recount her father's story, and how it had shaped her life, to Frank McGrath before he retired; sadly, her father did not live long enough to see her take up the Law Society presidency.

The government is now reviewing the WorkCover scheme and its final report is due this month. A joint parliamentary inquiry is also under way. So workers' comp has been an obvious early focus for Everett's term in the job. Over lunch at the Hyde Park Barracks Cafe, just a block away from the Law Society headquarters in Phillip Street in the city, she declares: "I want to look back and think yep, I have made a difference. Even if it's in some small way, I have made people's lives better."

Her determination to strengthen the society's commitment to mentoring women, still under-represented in the senior ranks of law firms, also derives from her own experiences.

A love of learning at Wellington High School in western NSW didn't translate to high enough marks to get into law at uni. She only began studying it when she was 37 and a single mother of three, living in Sydney's western suburbs.

Everett's first career as a librarian exercised her other passion - for books. She married young and went to work for a solicitor as a paralegal after having three children.

The marriage didn't last but she completed her law studies in 1996 through the Solicitors Admissions Board while working full time.

Two years later, resisting the glamour of the big city law firms, she set up her own practice, focusing on obtaining compensation for injured victims of accidents at work and on the roads.

She's made western Sydney her mission. "Fortunately the practice was very successful and I have never looked back," she says.

"Serving the clients of western Sydney has been a challenging and rewarding vocation, especially working as an advocate for those who are struggling. When people would come in and tell me their story, I just couldn't bear to turn them away."

But the Carr government's tort law reforms in the late 1980s and more recent changes to personal injury laws under the O'Farrell government, forced the business to diversify and shed most of its 20 staff. Everett, 61, says she will keep her hand in the Penrith practice, even though representing 27,000 solicitors as Law Society president is a full-time job for the next 12-months.

"I'll be keeping touch with the office daily and also going to court for a couple of cases where my clients would feel like I'd deserted them if I didn't show up," she says.

Dressed in a plain black skirt, cropped jacket with beige trim, and black Bata shoes, Everett says the only designer label she wears is the one on the frames of her Prada glasses. Her brunette bob is conservative and tidy but her laugh is unrestrained.

She says no to wine at lunch and chooses a Tuscan salad with mixed leaves, Greek olives and cheese featuring artichoke hearts, one of her favourite foods. She confesses she has to watch what she eats because of demanding round of lunches and dinners that come with the job.

When Everett invited two soldiers to share their experiences in Afghanistan at a recent Law Society breakfast, most of the lawyers in the room were in tears.
"We've seen a lot of bad things in our practices, but hard-nosed lawyers were really upset and cried," she says.

Everett has exercised her president's prerogative to select Soldier On on behalf of the Law Society as its charity this year.

It supports Australian servicemen who return from duty with physical and emotional injuries, including post traumatic stress disorder.

Her son Jeremy is in the army and has been deployed overseas six times, including to Afghanistan. Her father was a World War II veteran and had PTSD, she says. "But he would never talk about the war. I can remember as a very small child, waking up hearing dad screaming."

One of Jeremy's few complaints about his mother is the name she chose for him.

"It's not a tough soldier's name," Everett says with a laugh. "His army mates call him Evo or Jim."

Jeremy, 34, was on duty overseas when she helped deliver his first child Charli in Lismore in 2012.

Her older son Anthony is 42 and works as an artist in the Blue Mountains. Her daughter Kirrily is a teacher and has two daughters.

"None of them wanted to follow me into the law," she says. "Jeremy said I don't want to work as hard as you. Then he went and joined the army.

"If I had to make a choice between having career and walking away from my family, it would be no choice at all. Family always comes first."

A wheelie bag filled with heavy legal documents is at her side ready for a quick getaway on the train to Penrith after lunch.

She was introduced to her husband Philip Fitzgerald, a Catholic theologian and lecturer, by a mutual friend. Seven hours of chatting on their first lunch date left Everett in no doubt about her feelings. They married two years ago, when she was 59, and live at Lapstone, in the lower Blue Mountains. "We got married within two years of meeting each other. He's a wonderful man."

"It was love at first sight," she says. "We are all diehard romantics, no matter how old we are."

With three children and three grandchildren, Everett shares community concerns about alcohol-fuelled violence. "While of course we support efforts to tackle violence, studies show that mandatory minimum sentences just don't work," says Everett. She plans to soon meet the new Premier, Mike Baird, to challenge the government's law and order agenda.

Earlier this year the government introduced a minimum mandatory sentence of eight years for an alcohol-related assault causing death. The Law Society is opposed to the state government's proposed introduction of minimum mandatory sentences for assaults causing serious injury. The legislation has been blocked by the upper house of Parliament.

"No one wants violence on the streets, but mandatory sentencing is not a deterrent," Everett says.

"Studies have shown that high-visibility policing, CCTV, light and breaking up the gangs that roam around [Kings] Cross, can help.

"It's a whole of community thing. We can't expect the judges by sentencing to solve all the problems of society."

Some of her colleagues quietly admit the Law Society may have trodden too softly in past negotiations with the O'Farrell government, but Everett is ready to be more vocal. "I'm not going to be a pushover. I'm going to be speaking out because I want to make a difference," she says. "If they don't listen, we'll find other ways to be heard.

"A government has an obligation to make laws that are going to work, not just because the community is upset.

"The government has to have the courage to say I feel your pain, but really if we change the law in this way it is not going to help you. It is just going to have some unfair results."

Former premier O'Farrell was critical of the judiciary, claiming it was out touch with the community. Baird recently echoed that sentiment, saying he would "continue to reserve the right to act, if there was a sense the judiciary are not reflecting community concern".

He also says he will consult with stakeholders. "Let's just hope he's as good as his word," Everett says. "I hope to consult with them and to have a place at the table. I'm not here just to sit in a chair, I'm here to make a difference."


  • 1953 Born in Wellington, NSW
  • 1971 Completed HSC at Wellington High School
  • 1996 Admitted as a solicitor in NSW
  • 1998 Started own law practice in Penrith
  • 2002 Elected as Law Society of NSW councillor
  • 2011 Elected to the Law Society of NSW executive
  • 2012 Married Philip Fitzgerald
  • 2013 Appointed to the board of Legal Super
  • 2014 Elected as president of Law Society of NSW