Queensland’s newly minted Chief Justice Helen Bowskill today flagged access to justice for all members of the community as one of the most pressing issues confronting the nation’s courts and legal profession.
Chief Justice Bowskill was sworn in this morning as Queensland’s 20th head of the judiciary during a ceremony in the Brisbane QEII Courts of Law’s Banco Court attended by dignitaries and heads of jurisdictions from across Australia and Queensland – including every current sitting member of the state’s Supreme Court.
Her Honour becomes the second woman appointed Chief Justice in Queensland in more than 150 years and the first woman, and second ever, judge elevated from the state’s District Court to the state’s highest judicial office.
Attendees at today’s ceremony included High Court of Australia Chief Justice Susan Kiefel AC, Federal Circuit and Family Court Chief Justice Will Alstergren QC, Queensland’s Chief District Court Judge Brian Devereaux SC and Magistrate Judge Terry Gardiner, and included speeches of praise and welcome from Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman, Queensland Law Society President Kara Thomson and Bar Association President Tom O’Sullivan QC.
Taking the oath of office from Queensland’s Court of Appeal President Walter Sofronoff QC, Chief Justice Bowskill used the ceremony to highlight the need for greater access to justice to all Queenslanders.
“It is an absolute honour, and a real privilege, to have the opportunity to serve the people of Queensland in this important role,” Chief Justice Bowskill said. “I am excited and enthusiastic by what lies ahead.
“As some of you may know, I did not have a direct path to legal studies from school. I had to apply for special consideration to get into QUT (Queensland University of Technology) to study law because my school leaving results were affected by earlier failed attempts at studying because of mental health struggles. I am lucky they let me in.
“(Now former) Chief Justice Holmes spoke last Friday (at her valedictory) of the ‘light bulb’ moment that she knew she wanted to be a (legal) advocate.
“For me, it was not so such a moment, but a gradual awakening and realisation from the perspective of a secretary in a barrister’s chambers that this was something that I wanted to do, and more importantly, was ready to work hard to achieve.
“But, the idea that I would one day be a judge, let alone the Chief Justice, would have been incomprehensible to me.
“That life experience is perhaps part of the reason why I am happy to be an advocate for, and will continue to support, efforts to improve the mental health and well-being of judicial officers, lawyers and law students.”
Chief Justice Bowskill
Her Honour, a proud 52-year-old mother of three girls, spoke of starting her legal career as a secretary for barristers including now fellow Supreme Court Justice Debra Mullins AO and as an associate to former Federal Court of Australia Justice Douglas Drummond QC, who was also in attendance.
Chief Justice Bowskill’s stellar and unprecedented rise through the Queensland legal profession started as a legal secretary, studying law part-time at QUT (from which she graduated in 1995). In 1996, she was associate to Justice Drummond, became a barrister in 1998 and took silk in 2013.
In November 2014, her Honour was appointed a judge of the Queensland District, Childrens and Planning and Environment Courts. In July 2017 she was elevated to a Justice of the Supreme Court and in August last year appointed Supreme Court Senior Judge Administrator.
Chief Justice Bowskill, in her address, also paid tribute to outgoing Chief Justice Holmes, saying it had been an honour and privilege to serve alongside her.
“(Justice Holmes) leaves very big shoes to fill; it’s a good thing I love shoes,” she said.
Her Honour said improvements to technology throughout her more than 25-year legal career had increased technological efficiencies across courts and tribunals, but the same could not be said regarding access to justice.
“The (ongoing) improvement of technology within the courts … contributes to improve the efficiency of all court proceedings,” she said.
“(However) efficiency is not just about speed, it is also about cost, which is one of the real barriers to accessing justice which presently exists. The cost of professional legal services is approaching a level, if it has not already been reached, at which ordinary people cannot obtain them.
“Courts and tribunals at all levels are seeing the consequences of that in the significant rise of self-represented litigants. This is something the whole profession should be concerned about and endeavour to address.
“The economic or financial barrier is just one. There are other barriers – cultural, linguistic and physical – that may prevent members of the community from readily having access to justice. These things also are worthy of attention, effort and resources.”
‘Immense joy and privilege’
QLS President Kara Thomson said it was an “immense joy and privilege” to represent the Society on such an historical occasion.
“What an amazing day to be President of the Queensland Law Society and a member of the legal profession,” Ms Thomson said in her speech.
“It is with immense joy and privilege that I am here to formally welcome, on behalf of the Society and its members, the solicitors of Queensland, a new era, a new generation and a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland.
“Queenslanders who are faced by the most serious of issues, turn to this court for fair, rational, predictable, consistent and impartial application of the law and resolution of disputes.
“Members of the legal profession look to the Chief Justice as a role model of who we are and where we are headed. As only the second female Chief Justice in our state, your Honour sets a strong example for our profession of the success of merit-based appointments and the vibrancy and vigour that diversity brings to any institution.
“The full members of the Queensland Law Society are 52% female and 30% Generation X. These are some of the powerful drivers of change we see in our world and it is fantastic to see they are reflected in our courts.
“Your Honour is, and I have no doubt will continue to be, a role model for any young legal practitioner who tries to work hard at whatever they are doing and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
“Your Honour is highly respected both as a judicial officer and a leader in the legal profession in Queensland. Our members have expressed genuine delight at your appointment and absolute confidence in the future of the courts.
Watch the swearing-in ceremony on YouTube.