Paul Coe

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Paul Coe (born c.1949), a Wiradjuri man born at Erambie Mission in Cowra, is an Australian Aboriginal activist.[1] His grandfather was Paul Joseph Coe.[2]

Coe was the first Aboriginal scholar at Cowra High School to study for the Higher School Certificate and to be elected a prefect.[3]


Coe was active in campaigns around the 1967 referendum and the establishment in 1972 of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy,[4] working with Pearl Gibbs, Chicka Dixon and Billy Craigie in the fight for basic human rights and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

He played an important role at the Aboriginal Legal Service.[4]

In 1979, he commenced, as plaintiff, an action in the High Court of Australia arguing that at the time white people came to Australia, Aborigines were there and therefore the Court had to recognise their rights.[5]

His claim was never heard due to serious deficiencies with his statement of claim. Chief Justice Gibbs said, at paragraph 21, 'The question what rights the aboriginal people of this country have, or ought to have, in the lands of Australia is one which has become a matter of heated controversy. If there are serious legal questions to be decided as to the existence or nature of such rights, no doubt the sooner they are decided the better, but the resolution of such questions by the courts will not be assisted by imprecise, emotional or intemperate claims. In this, as in any other litigation, the claimants will be best served if their claims are put before the court dispassionately, lucidly and proper form'. The main issue intended to have been raised in the case came before the High Court thirteen years later. The Court ruled in Mabo v Queensland (No 2) that some Aboriginal rights over land still vested in the Crown could survive European arrival and be recognised under the guise of native title.


In 1997, following proceedings in the Legal Services Tribunal, Paul Coe's name was removed from the roll of legal practitioners. The Tribunal found that Coe had sworn an affidavit which he knew to be false in a material particular. The affidavit in question was sworn in the course of family law proceedings, to which Coe was a party, and understated his salary by some $80,000.[6]

Coe appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court of New South Wales Court of Appeal upheld the Tribunal's decision.

Both the Tribunal and the Court of Appeal commended Coe's role in advancing the interests of the Aboriginal community, however, the Court considered that Coe was not fit to practise, stating that the Court must be able to trust that barristers appearing before it would act in accordance with the law and would not mislead the Court.[6]

Media reports indicate that Coe was subsequently investigated by the Bar Association of NSW for continuing to practise despite being removed from the roll. The outcome of the investigation is unknown.[7]


  1. ^ "Bain Attwood and Terra Nullius". Sunday Profile. ABC Local Radio. 25 July 2004. 
  2. ^ Peter Read (2006). "Coe, Paul Joseph (1902? - 1979)". Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition. Australian National University. ISSN 1833-7538. 
  3. ^ "Paul's a Prefect". Dawn. June 1966. 
  4. ^ a b Jon Faine (November 1993). Lawyers in the Alice: aboriginals and whitefellas' law (3 ed.). Sydney: Federation Press. pp. 14–21. ISBN 978-1-86287-115-1. [1]
  5. ^ Coe v Commonwealth [1979] HCA 68
  6. ^ a b Coe v NSW Bar Association [2000] NSWCA 13
  7. ^ Debra Jopson (10 November 2003). "Struck-off barrister under investigation". SMH. 

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