Advocate for the disadvantaged wins NSW’s top law award


A NSW lawyer who has represented some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the community has taken out this year’s President’s Medal at the Law Society of NSW’s Annual Members Dinner and Awards Night.

President of the Law Society Cassandra Banks has congratulated Peter O’Brien, principal of Sydney law firm O’Brien Criminal and Civil Solicitors on receiving the award, regarded as one of the most prestigious for the legal profession in Australia.

“The President’s Medal is conferred each year on a Law Society member who has made a significant personal and professional contribution to the improvement of law and justice in the community. Mr O’Brien’s work in the quarter century since his admission has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the rule of law,” Ms Banks said.

This commitment once resulted in a Northern Territory Stipendiary Magistrate ordering Mr O’Brien into custody as he defended his client. The order was later declared unlawful. Mr O’Brien played a key role in exposing abusive practices at Darwin’s Don Dale Detention Centre. He also represented a man wrongly considered the prime suspect in the unsolved disappearance of William Tyrell, gaining a large damages award for malicious prosecution.

Ms Banks also praised Mr O’Brien’s contribution to developing early career lawyers, as both a mentor and educator.

“This year’s President’s Medal winner has served the profession with distinction as the author of a legal text on intentional torts, and as a respected presenter of continuing professional development sessions. Mr O’Brien is an accomplished practitioner, having achieved Law Society Specialist Accreditation in Criminal Law,” Ms Banks said.

“Mr O’Brien has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to providing access to justice to those who need it most, from representing children in the care and protection system for Legal Aid NSW, to private practice, where he represents legally aided clients and makes substantial contributions through his pro bono work.”

In addition to the President’s Medal, nine categories, including Young Lawyer of the Year, Regional Practitioner of the year and the Law Society Committee Member of the Year were awarded.

Ms Banks said the latter award honours the approximately 400 members who volunteer on our 18 policy committees. This year’s winner is Ali Mojtahedi, a solicitor at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

“Mr Mojtahedi has served with distinction as Chair of our Human Rights Committee, and as a member of our Public Law Committee. His leadership has resulted in thoughtful, considered and informed contributions to the Law Society’s work on issues like Robodebt and protecting the legal rights of asylum seekers. He plays a crucial role in reinforcing the purpose of the Law Society - Defending the Rights of All.” Ms Banks said.

A full list of award winners and highly commended nominees is reproduced below.

Award winners

President’s Medal 2023
  • Peter O’Brien, Principal of O’Brien Criminal and Civil Solicitors
  • HIGHLY COMMENDED: Vanessa Vazquez, Solicitor, Whiteley Ironside & Shillington

Young Lawyer of the Year Award
  • Meihua (Mei) Gong, Senior Associate, Johnson Winter Slattery

Professional Project Award
  • Criminal Law ‘Re-Thinking Punishment: An Exploration of Alternative Approaches to Sentencing’

Community Project Award
  • Advocacy and Community Leadership: How to Effect Broader Change with Lawyer Skills Outside of Lawyering’

Wellbeing Champion
  • Leona Bennett, Head of Family Law at Southern Waters Legal
  • HIGHLY COMMENDED: Stefanie Costi, Solicitor, Watts McCray

Regional Practitioner of the Year
  • Crystal Triggs, Legal and Program Manager, Bugmy Bar Book · Aboriginal Legal Service
  • HIGHLY COMMENDED: Vanessa Vazquez, Solicitor, Whiteley Ironside & Shillington

Committee Member of the Year
  • Ali Mojtahedi Solicitor ODPP, Chair of the Human Rights Committee and member of the Public Law Committee
  • HIGHLY COMMENDED: Jane Sanders, Principal Solicitor, Shopfront Youth Legal Centre

Community Service
  • Sarah Dale, Director, Refugee Advice and Casework Centre

Michelle Crowther Award – Excellence in Government Legal Service
  • Lida Kaban, General Counsel, Legal, Department of Communities and Justice

John Hennessy Legal Scholarship
  • Anthony Levin, Manager & Senior Solicitor, Combined Civil Law Specialist Team, Human Rights Group, Legal Aid NSW