Chat with Evan Ritli

7 mins

Evan is a lawyer at the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) in Victoria and a former Associate to the Honourable Justice Kennedy at the Supreme Court.

He has spent time in Cambodia as part of the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials (UNAKRT) providing assistance to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) and was also an Editor of the Monash University Law Review—in other words, a ridiculously bright spark.

One of his not-so-secret hobbies is travel. I caught up with him recently to find out more about his next (rather exotic) travel location, amongst other things.

LB. Hi Evan! I’m rather excited that we managed to get hold of you before you jet off to the other side of the world. Before we start talking law, a little bird told me that you’ll be heading off to a pretty exotic location this year. Do you think it could get any more exciting than North Korea?

ER. Hopefully! I always want the next trip to be more exciting than the last. I’m heading to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan for a little New Year holiday for a couple of weeks. I’ll meet up with a Scottish friend there who I lived with when I was in Cambodia. We’ll have a bit of a reunion and travel a bit of the Silk Road, which should be excellent. I’m not sure it will be more exciting than North Korea, but it will be different.

LB. At this point I have to digress, you’ve travelled to many countries around the world. Do you know how many you’ve been to?

ER. Not really, I’m thinking around 50 or so. Depends on how you count them.

LB. Most unique location you’ve been to?

ER. On my last trip, I went to an area called Nagorno-Karabakh, which is a breakaway region and disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azeris claim it’s theirs but Armenia actually holds the territory, so that was a bit different. There is still conflict, although the area is generally safe enough to visit.

LB. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey before law school and why you chose law?

ER. I never intended to become a lawyer—it was an accident! After high school, I took a gap year and did a bit of teaching work in China. Then I came back and majored in International Studies at RMIT. Through that, I developed an interest in international relations and human rights. I did an internship with the National Human Rights Commission of Mongolia when I was in my third year of university, which was the first time I thought about law. I was working with a heap of lawyers there who were going into prisons and doing good work. But I still didn’t go into law after that.

Then I went and did a Master of International Relations. After that, I took some time off and did an internship with Amnesty International. When I was working there, that was when I thought about going into law proper. I was in a team called ‘Individuals at Risk’, which was working on getting people out of jail that are at imminent risk of execution or the like. A lot of them were lawyers—not that the imminent risk of execution was what attracted me! But seeing these amazing human rights workers overseas that were standing up against some of the worst governments was kind of inspiring. Then I went into the JD at Monash and…

LB. The rest is history!

ER. The rest is history! But it was a long path, many years between high school and law.

LB. And you were on that path without thinking too much about it.

ER. Yes, it was certainly never planned. It was just one thing after another. When I enrolled in the JD, I was looking for work and trying to figure out generally what I should do with myself.

LB. What were your favourite subjects at law school?

ER. My two favourite subjects are kind of predictable, I think. I did a class in International Humanitarian Law (the laws of war). The lecturer for that was an American lawyer named Dan Mori, David Hicks’ military lawyer in Guantanamo Bay. That was a great class and that’s an area of law that I’m really interested in. My other favourite was an international law class I did in Israel at Hebrew University which was also super interesting—it helped that it was in Israel. Learning about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in a university campus that overlooked the occupied territories provided a lot of context.

In terms of normal, regular law classes, I would say my favourite subjects were Constitutional Law, Admin Law…

LB. All the subjects I was terrible at!

ER. I think Property Law was my least favourite.

LB. I loved Property Law!

ER. Really? Haha!

LB. Maybe that makes you a macro-thinker and I’m a micro-thinker. You’re a big-picture person.

ER. I liked Corporations Law strangely. It infuriated me but I enjoyed it.

LB. What are the essential ingredients for enjoying law school and do you have any advice?

ER. My advice would be to, as much as possible, make law school your primary focus at the time. I know it’s not possible for everyone to not work at the same time as studying, but if you can spend as much time focusing on your legal studies as you can, it really helps.

It might be strange advice, because a lot of people tell you to spend time doing things as far from law as possible to help you get through it. But I found that it was useful to really make it my main focus at the time. And also, to take up any opportunities that came up to travel, study overseas or get work experience. I know it’s easier said than done now when most people have to work while studying to just get by.

LB. Can you give us a peek into your day as a lawyer at the OPP?

ER. Sure, I can talk about my day today. My job at the OPP is a bit strange. I’m not in a regular trial division team, so what we do can be a bit all over the place.

This morning for instance, I instructed in a plea hearing relating to a prosecution under the Serious Offenders Act. Then I got out and worked on an aged prosecution file that was something like 30 years old. The accused ran away a long time ago. I reviewed it to see if we should continue the prosecution or not. Then I worked on some visas for some non-citizens being tried for crimes committed in Australia.

LB. Sort of like deportation?

ER. No, keeping them here strangely enough! So that they can be tried. Then I prepared for a court appearance tomorrow morning.

LB. Wow that’s a pretty full-on day of real work!

ER. Yes, real work. It was interesting though. It is nice to have varied work. There are common themes on a few projects, and some regular legislation that I work under. But there is quite a bit of variation within that. I also do some more general prosecution work as well.

LB. Social justice and international human rights issues are pretty close to your heart. What is one thing that lawyers and non-lawyers can do to support initiatives in these areas?

ER. I think it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to be a Gillian Triggs, Geoffrey Robertson or Julian Burnside to do meaningful human rights work. A lot of human rights work is about numbers, momentum and awareness. There are always ways that non-lawyers and lawyers alike can contribute. No matter who you are.

Remember that the impact of even small actions can be important—and, for better or worse, everything we do has a consequence.

LB. I have to admit that this is a pretty big question. How do you come to terms with doing things in a meaningful way without being overwhelmed? Because you can’t save the world on your own.

ER. Exactly, realistically you can’t. But that doesn’t mean you should give up! It’s about striking that balance between knowing that you’re not going to get everyone off Manus and Nauru tomorrow by yourself. But if enough people campaign and protest, that will eventually come to an end.

LB. Some of our readers might be interested in what it is like to work overseas in international law. Can you tell us about your time working in Cambodia?

ER. Working in Cambodia was fantastic. It’s an amazing country and I’d recommend going there even for a short visit. I was interning there—just to be clear that I wasn’t a UN Judge or anything like that.

I was working in the prosecution office, the Office of the Co-Prosecutors, on some of the trials there involving charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. I got to work on some pre-trial issues, some appeal work, and an ongoing trial, so it was across the board. It was an amazing experience. Organisations like the UN often rely on very junior people to do serious work to get things moving along. So you do get to be in important conversations and do important work even as an intern.

LB. What are your other secret (or not so secret) hobbies outside of the law?

ER. Other than travel…

LB. The bees?

ER. Well, the bees… I was a beekeeper for a short period of time until I developed a severe allergy. I actually sold them two days ago. My friend was looking after them as I can’t go near them—because I’ll die. Turns out that he developed a severe allergic reaction as well and I had to drive him to emergency two weeks ago.

LB. Oh no!

ER. So we decided to call it quits on the beekeeping. We sold them to some South African guy from Ballarat…

LB. Hahaha!

ER. As you do.

LB. Hopefully he will never develop a bee allergy.

ER. Well, he got stung nine times trying to put the bees in his car! I hope he’s still alive. Otherwise, I’d say gardening is a big hobby. As is scuba diving. I’m doing a rescue diving course in a few weeks.

LB. Your life is way too exciting.

ER. No it’s not! This rescue diving course is in Melbourne. I haven’t been diving in a while and I thought this would be a good way to get back into it.

LB. Ok, on to the next question—too much of an exciting person. What might your alternate universe persona be up to, other than being a lawyer?

ER. I certainly hope I wouldn’t be a lawyer. I’d like to think an astronaut or some kind of polar explorer. A scientist maybe? Something more exciting.

LB. Definitely involving travel, you think?

ER. Involving travel and some kind of discovery. And not in an office. Ha!

LB. If you could turn back time, what do you wish you could go back to tell your past self about?

ER. I think it would be that you don’t need a plan in life. Nobody’s life follows a perfect narrative or career path and few people know what they are going to be and how they are going to get there. That just never works, so don’t worry about it. Just do what feels right at the time and it will hopefully get you somewhere you want to be. Rather than saying that you need to ‘do this, this and this by this time’, which is just not true. It’s too much stress and unrealistic, because life just doesn’t work like that.

Interview from December 2018.