Journey to the bench

Imad Abdul-Karim, Bachelor of Laws 1998

Magistrate Imad Abdul-Karim reflects on the struggles he faced before tackling a career in law.

Western Sydney University’s first graduate judicial appointee, Magistrate Imad Abdul-Karim, carries in his mobile phone photographs that sadden and inspire.

One captures him with his younger brother and sisters nonchalantly sitting on an unexploded bomb as big as a hatchback. Another has them standing in front of an abandoned tank.

The family fled their war-torn village in Lebanon in 1985. They emigrated to Sydney. He was 15.

War and resettlement burned deep. “I had a moral sense of right and wrong as a young person,” Mr. Abdul-Karim, now 49, says. “I thought the law was about right and wrong and could help people who were underprivileged or fallen on hard times.”

His journey to the bench began at an annex to Beverly Hills Girls High School where he learned English. Completing the HSC at Endeavour High School in 1988 saw him accepted to the University of Wollongong to study science.

After graduation, he worked bars and drove cabs until he heard that Western Sydney University was establishing a law school.

Attracted by the thought of being in the first intake, and the emphasis on practical training, he enrolled in 1995. University was something of a family affair then; his mother, Salwa, who’d taught him at the village school, was upgrading teaching qualifications at the University.

Mr. Abdul-Karim recalls the “positive energy” surrounding the first intake as articulated by the Campbelltown Foundation Dean of the School of Law, Professor Robin Woellner, while delivering the opening lecture.

“He made a comment that still resonates in my mind. ‘In a few years’ time,’ he said, ‘you will be the leaders in our society. Some of you will be judges and you will be leaders in our legal profession. And what we would hope to do as part of your education is to make sure you have a good foundation in law and that you have the ethics and the legal ability to progress to be the best lawyers in Australia and to be leaders in our society.’”

Mr. Abdul-Karim completed his Bachelor of Law in 1998 and joined the NSW Crown Solicitor’s Office before heading to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in 1999. His first case, involved an alleged sexual assault that occurred on an aircraft en route flying from San Francisco to Sydney, requiring him to research the issue of Australian jurisdiction.

The subject became his area of expertise. When terrorism arrived in Australia, Mr. Abdul-Karim was the DPP’s leading prosecutor.

He led the case against Zaky Mallah, the first terrorism prosecution in Australia, and oversaw high-profile terrorism cases, including Operation Pendennis which uncovered jihadist cells in Sydney and Melbourne.

In 2007, he went to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom on a Churchill Fellowship to research the prosecution of terrorists such as the IRA.

He was also invited as an expert to speak at workshops conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to help South Asian countries effectively prosecute terrorists in accordance with the rule of law.

In 2017, Mr. Abdul-Karim was appointed a magistrate of the Local Court of NSW.
“My experience at Western really was the foundation of everything I’ve achieved. Our lecturers went beyond the call of duty to ensure we became good lawyers.

“I know when I studied law at the University, the people who graduated were of equal calibre to those who graduated from more established sandstone universities.”

In retrospect, he wishes he’d spent more time focused on enjoying the process of learning rather than marks.

“The best lessons you learn in life are from making mistakes and failure.” this story