Zarah Garde-Wilson is adamant she has moved on from the brutal terror of the gangland wars the had much of Melbourne under siege for eight years from 1998. When the shooting finally ended 36 people were dead – and among those left standing several turned to Garde-Wilson to represent them. In July Garde-Wilson will represent an Echuca man charged with a raft of offences. Senior writer IVY JENSEN met the lawyer in her Melbourne office to find out who she really is
STILETTOES clacking, face set with that steely-eyed stare, Zarah Garde-Wilson has swept into courts followed by some of Australia’s most notorious – and feared – gangsters and murderers.
These days, however, she is just as likely to have her three children towed along in her wake.
And she will almost certainly be in thongs by the time she gets them home.
But on July 28, in Shepparton Magistrates Court, it will be Echuca’s Bret Spits by her side, where he will be appearing for a committal mention after his arrest in relation to the theft of more than $700,000 worth of wake boats, cars and caravans late last month.
The minute Spits announced at his bail hearing that he had appointed her as his lawyer, media and police in the court sat bolt upright, waiting for the next explosive instalment.
It has long been a standard reaction, since the feisty lawyer achieved her own notoriety as the legal mouthpiece of lowlifes such as Carl Williams (murdered in prison) and Tony Mokbel (currently in prison but hoping to go free on the back of the Lawyer X scandal).
Now Spits, owner of Southern 80 superclass boat Arkham Asylum, and and one of the region’s leading figures in waterski racing, is on bail after being charged with two counts of theft of boat, two counts of theft of boat trailer, two counts of bringing stolen goods into Victoria, two counts of dealing with proceeds of crime and handling stolen goods.
His arrest, and that of co-accused Linc Mifsud, came after police raided three properties in Echuca on February 28 and seized four Malibu boats – one of which belonged to Supercars superstar Mark Winterbottom, two Range Rovers, a Mercedes, a Jayco caravan, two boats and an amount of cash.
If you were one of the few who didn’t keep up with the news during the Melbourne gangland killings of 1998–2006, when bodies were being dropped in the streets, driveways and playgrounds at an alarming rate (or missed Channel Nine’s award-winning Underbelly series) you probably wouldn’t know who Garde-Wilson is.
And that’s probably the way she likes it.
Because what you see on television, according to the 42-year-old, couldn’t be further from the truth.
She said she had never seen it but was just as adamant “most of it was fiction”.
“I’ve been asked many questions in relation to the context of it and from what I can see, other than the basic storyline, the rest is all fanciful drama.”
It also brought with it the unsolicited labels of ‘glamorous gangland lawyer’ and even ‘lawyer gone rogue’.
“The title gangland lawyer is that I’m the go-to lawyer for anyone charged with significant criminal offences. It’s a title, there’s nothing negative in relation to that,” she said.
“But ’gone rogue’ would be a term you would not have seen for the past 15 years and is completely misconstrued.
“I’ve been a legal practitioner since 2001 and I’ve been an officer of that court so any defamatory comments that have been made post that are nothing more than defamatory comments.”
And while Garde-Wilson has moved on, that time in her life, whether she likes it or not, moulded her into the lawyer she is today.
She admitted she was immersed in the criminal culture with her actions during the Melbourne gangland killings because of her employer.
“I worked in Western Australia for a defence firm but they closed down. It transferred over here to their office, which acted for a large number of what are referred to as ‘gangland figures’,” she said.
“That was my first real experience with that side of the world. It all flowed through my work at that practice.”
Then aged 24 at the time, Garde-Wilson said it was like living in Days of Your Lives.
“I’d never seen this side of society that existed in Melbourne ever,” she said.
“It was extraordinary to see the drama involved in these people’s lives – and that’s employer as well as clients.
“All the experience I had during that time, like anything in life, has made me a better defence lawyer.
“Even the worst things that happen to you mould the person you are today and it opened my eyes to a side of the community people never see. Which makes you far more attuned to the basic human psyche and those sorts of things.”
Growing up in the NSW Northern Tablelands city of Armidale, the daughter of farmers said she had a typical country upbringing.
“We had lots of sheep and animals. I would ride every day,” she said.
But when it came to school, Garde-Wilson said she was “average”.
“It’s not until you find your passion that you succeed in what you do,” she said.
With no idea what she wanted to do after completing year 12, Garde-Wilson decided to study law.
“I thought ‘why not?’ she said.
It was a move that surprised her parents.
“They didn’t think I’d be going to university. They wanted me to marry the farmer next door,” she said.
But Garde-Wilson had bigger plans.
“Criminal law and human rights are probably the most interesting part of any law degree but there are very limited opportunities in terms of human rights here so criminal law seems to be the only rights based law that you can go into,” she said.
She knocked back a position with the Director of Public Prosecutions in WA because “they appeared very closed minded and one-sided to the realities of society” and instead took a job as a defence lawyer.
“I love fighting for people who can’t fight for themselves” she said.
“I think being a defence lawyer takes a different type of person. You need to be very analytical in relation to things and most people don’t have that analytical skill. You also need to be ridiculously thick-skinned.”
Almost 20 years later and she is representing hundreds of clients a year, working from law firm Garde-Wilson Criminal Lawyers which she founded in 2004.
Asked whether the clients she represents are automatically elevated into the public and media spotlight because of her, she says most people don’t know who she is.
“Some people will recognise me and say, ‘you look familiar’. But unless you’re in the industry, I’m unknown,” she said.
“Within the industry you’re known, but outside the industry, you’re known for the quality of your work, not for a gangland title.
“That perspective was from over a decade ago and their views are well and truly in the history books.
“I represent more than 200 people a year in relation to defence matters and you rarely see any of my clientele in the media. It really was a series from the last decade that has basically been put into the history books – with the exception of the Royal Commission.”
She is talking, of course, about the Lawyer X scandal – where defence lawyer Nicola Gobbo acted as a police informant from January 1, 1995, to January 13, 2009.
“It was the worst thing that’s ever happened in the legal justice system in Australia and no doubt the Royal Commission will hold people accountable for it,” she said.
Garde-Wilson found herself at the centre of exposing Gobbo after discovering in 2008-09 she was acting as an asset.
“Her actions were illegal and a disgrace to the justice system,” Garde-Wilson said. “In her own words, she wanted the attention.”
Garde-Wilson said she had known for a while that Gobbo, who covertly informed on her clients, was not the only one and practising lawyers were still registered as police informers as recently as 2018.
And she said forcing this Royal Commission had been the biggest achievement of her career.
“Six months of the Royal Commission I was there for all of it, I saw all of it,” she said.
“It’s brought a decade of the worst corruption of the justice system to the surface. It has forced the justice system to review itself to ensure this never happen again.
“It’s also made a dramatic difference to the judiciary’s respect for Victoria Police and no doubt the public’s respect for Victoria Police and their integrity.”
It’s not the only precedent Garde-Wilson has set in her career.
She is the midst of suing technology behemoth Google in a bid to unmask an online reviewer who she believes a legal competitor.
The lawsuit, recently filed in the Federal Court, paves the way for defamation action against the author who criticised the law firm who Garde-Wilson says has never acted for.
She forwarded this review to the Google investigations team to be removed but despite requesting it be removed, it stayed on her page.
Until the lawsuit was filed.
“It’s going incredibly well,” she said of the court case.
“This is new territory for Google.
“There’s multiple businesses going out of business, small businesses that have been ruined because people think this is okay and Google is not doing anything about it.”
She said the matter was going to court in another week to obtain orders.
“Following that, we’ll have the material to push the proceedings further,” she said.
It’s this never-say-die attitude and determination to do what she believes is right that got Garde-Wilson to where she is today.
“Right now, I can say I’m one of Australia’s leading defence lawyers and that’s my reputation,” she said.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work, a lot of fighting and proving the wrongs.”
And if anything has increased that fight, it is motherhood.
“As most mothers would say, it’s the most amazing thing you could ever experience,” she said.
While many would admit motherhood is also the hardest job you’ll ever do, Garde-Wilson disagrees.
“I would never use the word tough in raising children,” she said.
“It’s the most rewarding thing you could ever experience.”
And as busy as she is in her practice, she is a hands-on mother to her 11-year-old daughter and nine-year-old twins.
“At four o’clock, the thongs come on and you’re a Mum. And you don’t become a lawyer again until nine o’clock the next morning,” she said.
“I can leave my career at work in a split second and I don’t work weekends.
“Thongs to stilettos, stilettos to thongs. I have a very good work life balance.”
And when it comes to following in her footsteps, Garde-Wilson believes all her children could.
“As a mother, my children are very proud of my reputation,” she said.
“They come to court and watch me.”
And when she is in the courtroom, she is adamant there is nothing glamorous about it.
“That’s the difference between public perception and reality. There’s no glamour in relation to it,” she said.
“The courtroom is a very subdued environment. It’s quite a scary environment for a lot of people and our job is to make sure our clients know what’s going on and they feel safe in the environment that it’s going on.
“It’s the complete opposite to what people perceive on TV in American dramas and all that. Our role is an equal role with everyone in the courtroom. We’re trying to make things right for the community and make things better for the offender in the long run so it’s all in the interests of justice and we’re all working towards one goal.
“There is a very wrong perception of what a defence lawyer is. A defence role is only to determine has the prosecution proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the only role. It’s not a personal view in relation to anything. It’s not a question of whether a client is saying they’re guilty or not guilty, it’s ‘can the charge be proven?’ and if that’s the case, pleas can be entered in relation to that.
“Ninety per cent of cases resolve to pleas of guilty to the appropriate charges. It’s all about rehabilitation and getting the offender back into the environment where they can stop offending. Very few cases are contested and go to trial and half of them succeed. And the ones that succeed are the ones that are either not guilty or the evidence is such that it and not be established that they are guilty.
“If a client instructs their guilty, a lawyer can’t turn around and say, ‘I’m going to plead not guilty, don’t worry about it’. That’s not our role. And that’s a misconception that the community has ‘how can you act for these guilty people? You know they’re guilty’. That’s not the role of a defence lawyer.
“Until you or someone in your family is exposed for a criminal offence, the second you’re exposed to it and you’ll actually understand what’s actually going on, all of a sudden your defence lawyer will become your best friend and those perceptions go completely out the window because you’ve got no idea what’s actually going on.
“Everyone’s family is connected to it somehow, whether it’s a culpable drive charge, a drink drive or drug charge, everyone’s exposed to this kind of stuff. Defence lawyers are the ones who help you out and get you through it.”
And that’s what she plans to do with her most recent client.
When it comes to Spits, “the matters are before the court” so commenting on it will be the last thing Garde-Wilson does.
But what she can say is that she will give him the best defence he could hope for. Why?
“I know the law intrinsically. Back to front,” she said.
“It’s complex but when you live and breathe it, it’s nothing.”