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Profession farewells our first woman Chief Justice

In one of her final official appearances, Chief Justice Catherine Holmes spoke at last week's QLS Symposium.

Queensland Chief Justice Catherine Holmes AC demonstrated her trademark “no fuss humility, fairness and compassion” as the legal profession gathered today to pay tribute to her 40 years of outstanding and dedicated service to the law.

A veritable who’s who of the Australian legal profession – including the first woman High Court of Australia Chief Justice Susan Kiefel AC – packed into Brisbane’s QEII Courts of Law’s ceremonial Banco Court for Chief Justice Holmes’ valedictory ceremony, which was also streamed on YouTube.

As words of praise flowed from fellow Supreme Court Justice Hugh Fraser, Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman, Queensland Law Society President Kara Thomson and Bar Association Queensland President Tom O’Sullivan acknowledging her Honour’s stellar legal career – Chief Justice Holmes herself took time to thank those who helped her.

“I have always thought that the great charm of a valedictory would be that you got all the sorts of nice things said about you at your eulogy without the associated disadvantage of being dead… and that seems to be about right,” she said.

“Some self-depreciation in response (to all the praise I’ve received) would be appropriate, but I don’t want to spoil anything. I will instead acknowledge a lot of luck in this career.”

In particular, Chief Justice Holmes acknowledged her humble beginnings, the “utter delight” of working with her young court associates and the unwavering support of her family.

“I have thought it an encouraging sign of an increasing equity in the legal profession that a woman from a very working class background without any legal connections or the advantage of education at one of the more prominent private schools could achieve the position of Chief Justice,” she said.

“A source of utter delight are my 19 associates over the last 22 years, a couple of them doubled up and did two years (rather than the usual one). They are lined up across (the front row of) the court, except for one I can see beaming in, literally beaming in (via video link) from Paris (France). There is supposed to be one from New York, but typically I think he may not have made it… and maybe he’s just reminding me of old times.

“Anyway, all of my associates are very clever, funny and well read. … (and as an avid reader myself) it is quite true I did (often) just ask them ‘what are you reading?’ and if they were good I just took them.

“The A-G (Ms Fentiman) did mention that I was an astute judge of character and there (in my associates) is your evidence. It is very gratifying to look at them because it reminds me of what excellent taste I have.”

In concluding her 15-minute address, Chief Justice Holmes took time to thank her family.

“Well, that was wordy, a little self-indulgent, embarrassingly devoid of lofty thoughts… but I have one good piece of luck (I have experienced in life) to mention, which is the unfailing support of my husband of forty-something years – Arthur Preston.

“I doubt I would have had this career without his backing, and cooking. We have produced three children – Ellen, Rosemary and Martin – of whom we are fond and proud. I hope (in retirement) to spend a lot of the years ahead with them, but I did see them wincing as reference was made to that prospect. Thank all very much for attending… adjourn the court.”

Chief Justice Holmes was appointed to the Queensland’s highest judicial office on 11 September 2015 and announced her intention to resign as of today on 19 October 2021.

Her Honour, now 65, began her legal career as a solicitor in 1982, as a barrister in 1984 and was appointed a Senior Counsel in 1999.

Chief Justice Holmes was one of the founding members of the Women’s Legal Service (1984), member of the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal (1994-2000) and Queensland Community Corrections Board deputy president (1997).

She was counsel assisting the Forde Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse (1998-99), Queensland Floods Inquiry Commissioner (2010-12).

Chief Justice Holmes was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland in 2015, having served as a judge of the Queensland Court of Appeal from 2006. Chief Justice Holmes has previously served as Judge of the Queensland Supreme Court (2000–2006), Judge of the Queensland Mental Health Court (2005–2006) and acting Judge of the District Court of Queensland (1999).

QLS President Kara Thomson, in her tribute, thanked Chief Justice Holmes for her years of support and unwavering dedication and commitment to the Society and the solicitor’s branch of the profession.

The valedictory ceremony is available to watch on YouTube.

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