Australia appoints first ever woman Chief Justice of the High Court.

I wrote a blog post in October of this year about women judges, and a Council of Europe report on the proportion of women judges across European jurisdictions. The report found that the judicial systems with the lowest percentage of women among professional judges were: Azerbaijan (11%), Armenia (23%), Northern Ireland (23%), Scotland (23%), England & Wales (30%) and Ireland (33%). To put the figures for Ireland, North and South, into perspective: the Europe-wide average for women representation among the judiciary was 51%.

In fact, it has now been over a year since the first two women in the history of the judiciary in NI were appointed to the NI High Court. Upon being sworn into office, Denise McBride QC and Siobhan Keegan QC were the first women to be appointed to the position since the High Court was established in 1921. I remember hearing the news, and feeling a weird sensation of pride and exasperation: pride that these talented and experienced women were being recognised, and exasperated at the fact that it had taken so long for women to be appointed in the first place.

Their appointments were welcomed by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, who established the Women in Law group in 2012. He said the appointments made him feel as though “the hands of history” were on his shoulder. After all, senior judicial ranks in NI have been a veritable citadel of male dominance since 1921. Moreover, this was not just confined to the judiciary. For much of that time, it was the status quo for the rest of the legal profession, too. Incredibly, during the first 50 years of the Bar Council in Northern Ireland, a mere eight women were called to the Bar. Of those eight women, only three went on to practice.

I was at once both similarly gladdened and frustrated by the news from Australia in late November: Susan Mary Kiefel AC was confirmed as the incoming Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. Her appointment marks the first time a woman held the position in the court’s 113-year history.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbul confirmed that Justice Kiefel will take over from Robert French as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia when he retires from the bench in January 2017. Her appointment was announced alongside that of 42-year-old James Edelman, who has been appointed as a High Court judge in order to fill the vacancy left behind by Justice Kiefel’s elevation. The appointments have received wide approval from both the Turnbull government and the Labour Party opposition, with shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus havng described both appointments as ‘highly deserved’.

Justice Kiefel’s appointment is welcome news, especially given her background and fantastic legal career. Her career had been described by Prime Minister Turnbull as ‘an inspiration’ when he announced her appointment. Upon reading up on her biography, I found that ‘an inspiration’ is certainly a valid way to describe her career. It is illustrative of the view that there are more ways to enter the legal profession that the traditional straight from secondary school to a LLB, and onwards to the subsequent postgraduate training courses.

After dropping out of high school at the age of 15 in pursuit of financial independence, Justice Kiefel was employed as a secretary for a building society, an architect, and an exploration company before starting work as a receptionist for a group of barristers, Fitzgerald, Moynihan and Mack, a Brisbane law firm. She studied for completion of her high school qualifications part-time while working at the firm. In 1973, Kiefel joined solicitors Cannan and Peterson (which became Sly & Weigall Cannan & Peterson and is now Norton Rose Fulbright) as a legal clerk. She then commenced studying law part-time through the Barristers Admission Board, passing her course with Honours. After practicing at the bar, she then gained a Master of Laws from the University of Cambridge. She was awarded the C.J. Hamson Prize in Comparative Law and the Jennings Prize.  Justice Kiefel then became the first woman in the state of Queensland to take silk in 1987.

She was appointed to the Queensland Supreme Court in 1993, and the Federal Court of Australia in 1994. Finally, Justice Kiefel has served a tenure as President of the Queensland Bar Association. In 2008, she was elected to an Honorary Fellowship of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

In August 2009, Justice Kiefel was granted an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University. Justice Kiefel was chosen to recognise her distinguished contributions to the legal profession and for leading the way for women in the industry. On 13 June 2011, she was named a Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to the law and to the judiciary, to law reform and to legal education in the areas of ethics, justice and governance.

In August 2007, Attorney-General Philip Ruddock announced Kiefel as the nominee to the High Court of Australia to replace the retiring High Court Justice Ian Callinan. Kiefel had previously been considered a favourite nominee to replace former High Court Justice Mary Gaudron when she retired in 2003, and again in 2005 as replacement for Justice Michael McHugh. Kiefel is the third woman High Court Justice, and the forty sixth overall. Her appointment alongside incumbent Justice Susan Crennan marked the first time two women sat concurrently on the High Court bench.

She is considered a conservative “black letter” lawyer in the mould of Justice Heydon. At the High Court, Justice Kiefel has been involved in high-profile judgements including dismissing the Australian government’s Malaysia refugee solution, the overturning of a same-sex marriage law and the collapse of a company owned by billionaire former MP Clive Palmer.

Many have heralded Justice Kiefel’s appointment as a milestone of women in the Australian legal profession, which is still working to shake off its historical ‘boys club’ status. In 2005, as Justice McHugh neared his retirement, he made a speech in which praised the only female judge in the High Court’s history, Mary Gaudron, and said he wanted a woman to succeed him. He was described as having ‘sealed his status as poster boy for women lawyers with his claim that there are 10 females who would make “first-class” High Court judges’. However, that it took two more years before Kiefel was appointed to the High Court, emphasises the ‘boys club’ nature of the Australian judiciary, despite Justice McHugh’s remarks.

In a short statement following the announcement, Justice Kiefel said the High Court was as relevant now as it was more than a century ago:

“The issues that come before the High Court affect many aspects of the life of the nation…

“It will be a privilege to walk in the footsteps of the eminent jurists who have been appointed chief justices since the court was established in 1903.”

Law Council of Australia president Stuart Clark described Justice Kiefel as a ‘trailblazer for women in the legal profession’ and ‘an inspiration to all young people considering a career in law.’

Australian Women Lawyers President Ann-Maree David also praised the appointment, but warned against complacency, saying:

‘The appointment of Justice Susan Kiefel as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia gives us confidence that times are changing. However, neither Australian Women Lawyers nor the public they serve will wait another 113 years to achieve equality in all regards…’

Ms David further cited a persistent gender pay gap and poor elevation rates for women in private practice and the judiciary. It is evident that there is still work to be done in terms of gender parity, and recognition of women’s issues in the legal system. In this regard, Northern Ireland and Australia have something in common.

In a speech to graduates at Griffith University in 2009, Justice Kiefel spoke of her “fortunate” career as both barrister and judge:

“With the benefit of considerable hindsight it is quite easy to say how one may have a rewarding working life…

“It does not seem so simple when you are not there. You find that occupation or endeavour that suits your talents and your personality.

“It is what the educator Sir Ken Robinson calls being in your element … people in their element are doing the thing they love and in doing it they feel like their most authentic self.”

I feel that these are words we can all take away from this story: life and a chosen profession is about finding what suits you, what you are stimulated by and interested in, and smply being yourself.

We may not agree with Justice Kiefel’s interpretation of the law. But we can all surely appreciate her background, the trajectory of her legal career, and her trailblazing path which has ensured women have finally reached the highest position in the Australian judiciary.


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