Woman Behrendt, Larissa

Academic, Lawyer and Writer

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Larissa Behrendt is a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman, born in Cooma, New South Wales, in 1969. She was educated at Kirrawee High School before studying law at the University of New South Wales and then at Harvard Law School.

Her parents, Paul Behrendt, an Aboriginal man who trained as an air traffic controller with the navy, and Raema, a non-Indigenous woman who worked in naval intelligence married in 1968. Paul Behrendt, who had an Aboriginal mother and a white father, had had little sense of his Aboriginality, but from about 1980 began to find his family, his place and a sense of identity. He began mixing with other Aboriginal academics and activists and established an Indigenous education centre at the University of New South Wales at the time Larissa began her law degree. She and her brother, Jason, had also, with the support of their mother, begun expressing their aboriginality, attending Aboriginal rights rallies and protests. By this stage, Paul and Raema had separated and Paul had begun a relationship with black activist Roberta Sykes, who was to become an important role model and mentor for Behrendt.

After graduating with law degrees from UNSW, she worked for legal aid and in family law, before Sykes persuaded her to apply for a scholarship to Harvard. She was successful and became the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from Harvard Law School. She returned to Australia to take up a postdoctoral research position at the Australian National University and in 2000 moved to the University of Technology, Sydney where she is Professor of Law and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning.

Since the 1990s Behrendt has been increasingly recognised as a leading activist for and commentator on Aboriginal human and legal rights and education, as well as a novelist and academic of high standing. Her contributions to improving legal outcomes for Aboriginal people include the books Dispute Resolution in Aboriginal Communities (1995) and Achieving Social Justice (2003) and Indigenous Australia for Dummies (2012), the latter a comprehensive and accessible account of Indigenous history and culture. She has also conducted significant policy work in the area, as chair of the federal government's Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, the 2012 report of which calls for achievable parity targets.

At the heart of Behrendt's leadership in Aboriginal rights is the belief that Aboriginal people play a key role in assessing the fairness of Australia's laws and institutions, writing, 'I have always argued that it is never enough that laws, policies or the Constitution work for middle-class members of the dominant culture. The true test of their worth is the extent to which they work for the poor, the marginalised and the culturally distinct. Using this test, we can see that there is room for improvement in the rights of Indigenous people.' (Behrendt 2007)

As well as working to ensure Aboriginal legal and cultural rights are recognised, Behrendt has been influential as a highly visible Aboriginal woman holding a wide range of public positions. These include that of land commissioner at the Land and Environment Court, alternate chair of the Serious Offenders Review Board and membership of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia and the Australian Academy of Law; previously she has also been chair of the Humanities and Creative Arts panel of the Australian Research Council College of Experts and a director of the Sydney Writers' Festival. She has been involved with the groundbreaking Bangarra Dance Theatre as a board member since 2005 and chair of the board since 2010. In addition to these roles, she has been a dedicated supporter of accessible education for all children, through her work with the Sydney Story Factory, a not-for-profit creative writing centre for young people, located in Redfern, Sydney, and as an ambassador for the Guwara Aboriginal Campus at St Andrew's Cathedral School in central Sydney.

Behrendt is also a writer of fiction, having published two novels that deal with autobiographical issues. The first, Home (2002), won the 2002 David Uniapon Award and the 2005 Commonwealth Writer's Prize; the second, Legacy, was published in 2010. In 2009 she was named National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Person of the Year and in 2011 NSW Australian of the Year. She is married to former Australian attorney-general, Michael Lavarch.

Published Resources


  • Behrendt, Larissa, Home, Queensland University Press, Brisbane, Queensland, 2004. Details
  • Behrendt, Larissa, Legacy, Queensland University Press, Brisbane, Queensland, 2009. Details

Book Sections

  • Behrendt, Larissa, 'Profile Five: Larissa Behrendt', in Sykes, Helen and Frydenberg, Erica (eds), The Australian Leadership Reader, Australian Academic Press, Brisbane, Queensland, 2006, pp. 71 - 82. Details

Online Resources

See also