High Court Chief Justice opens pro bono conference

Retiring High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in Brisbane for the A2J conference in June.

An inspiring address from retiring High Court Chief Justice Susan Kiefel set the tone for a national gathering of legal stakeholders in Brisbane today.

At the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, Chief Justice Kiefel opened the two-day National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference with a keynote speech which outlined the history of free legal services across the globe.

She explained how the status of “in forma pauperis” (Latin for “in the manner of a pauper”) had enabled free access to courts for the poor across the ages, and how modern pro bono services continued the tradition of ensuring all people had access to the courts, regardless of their ability to pay.

Chief Justice Kiefel pointed to two watershed events in Australia’s modern history of access to justice: the establishment of the Australian Legal Aid Office in 1973, and the release of the Australian Commission of Enquiry into Poverty’s Discussion Paper ‘Legal Aid in Australia’, by Professor Ronald Sackville, in 1975.

“They occurred in a period which in Australia, I think marked an awakening of interest in effective access to justice but they identify neither the beginning nor the end of the access to justice story,” she said.

“The expression ‘access to justice’ is firmly entrenched in socio-political and legal discourse …The views about how access to justice may best be achieved may have changed over time but there can be no doubt this goal to be worth pursuing.”


Chief Justice Kiefel last week announced her retirement from the High Court, to take effect in November. She was appointed to the High Court in 2007. She replaced Robert French as Chief Justice in 2017, becoming the first woman to lead the court since it was established in 1903.

Born in Queensland, she was admitted to the bar in 1975 and became Queensland’s first female Queen’s Counsel in 1987. In 1993 she became a Supreme Court Justice, and a year later a Federal Court Justice.

Panellists (L to R) Edwina Rankin, Executive Officer, National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services; Karly Warner, Chair, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services; Nicky Davies, Chief Executive Officer, Legal Aid Queensland; Professor Anna Cody, Chair, Community Legal Centres Australia. At the podium is Panel Chair, Mark Woods, Co-Chair, Access to Justice Committee, Law Council of Australia.

The conference

The 8th National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference, co-hosted by Queensland Law Society, Australian Pro Bono Centre and Law Council of Australia, is the first since 2019.

Law Council of Australia president Luke Murphy said organisers had expected between 170 and 200 people to attend and were heartened when more than 300 registered.

He said the response reinforced the message that equal access to justice should not depend on economic status.


“It’s important to speak truth to power and put our case forward for lasting change,” he said.

The conference will hear from a variety of legal stakeholders from across the country, including legal professionals, judges, government law officers and academics.

View the full program here:

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