Chief Justice paved way for women

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

Retiring High Court Chief Justice Kiefel AC will return to her home state of Queensland today, where her ground-breaking career first started.

The Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia will step down from the role on 5 November having served as a Justice since 2007 and Chief Justice since 2017.

Born in Cairns and educated in Queensland, Chief Justice Kiefel will return to Brisbane for a Bar Association of Queensland retirement dinner.

The High Court officially farewelled the first female Chief Justice in a ceremonial sitting last week.

At that ceremony, Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus KC said it was a “great privilege” to farewell the 13th Chief Judge after “16 years of dedicated service to this court and more than 30 years of service to Australian judiciary”.

“On behalf of Australian Government and Australian community, I express my appreciation for your exceptional leadership and significant contribution to the Australian judiciary,” Mr Dreyfus said.


He shared some of Chief Justice Kiefel’s career milestone saying she was “called to the bar in 1975 having never practised as a solicitor, joining two other women practising at the Queensland Bar, a courageous move as Her Honour left school at age 15”.

He recounted that she was a legal secretary who studied at night and “quickly excelled at the bar – becoming known for intellect, insight and indefatigable work ethic which has marked out your long and successful career in the law”.

In 2007, for the first time in the Court’s history, two women sat on the bench and CJ Kiefel was the third woman on the High Court bench.

In 2017, she became the first woman to occupy the role of Chief Justice.

“With every step you’ve paved the way forward for other individuals with diverse experiences and backgrounds to follow in your footsteps in establishing a career in law,” Mr Dreyfus said.

He said a judge she was known for “incisive intellect, clear writing style and collegiality” and leaving a legacy for “promoting greater clarity confidence and consistency in the law”.


And he said that under her leadership that court strived to speak with one voice where appropriate.

Chief Justice Kiefel also commented on her historic path to the law.

“My journey to a life in the law, sometimes remarked upon as unusual and for that reason of interest, of course it is not so interesting for the person who is simply making their way as best they can. But if my experience has encouraged others to aspire to being a lawyer then I am pleased,” she said.

“I took appointment as a Judge at a relatively young age. I have never regretted that decision. I had always assumed I’d find the work of a judge to be satisfying and it would provide me with a sense of what I was doing was worthwhile. That assumption proved correct.

“My appointment was not the only one made of a relatively young woman silk or lawyer at the time, I believe many women took early appointment out of a sense of duty.

“The general view then was that it would be beneficial to the profession for women to be part of the judiciary, and for society more generally to see women in positions of authority.


“Much has been achieved since then. It is my hope that now women lawyers will not feel the same sense of duty to accept an appointment at an early age, there is still much to be done within the profession to advance women particularly as women in it and as advocates in the highest courts.”

She said one of the greatest challenges of her career was the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it brought “great disruption to courts and the administration of justice in this country” and she commended the legal profession for working within the limitations of COVID restrictions.

CJ Kiefel said she was proud to have been a member of the Australian judiciary for the past 30 years.

“I have learned much from other judges and made many friends amongst them,” she said.

“The existence of a competent, independent, impartial, dedicated and ethical judiciary is largely taken for granted in our society. It should not be. An understanding of our system of law and the governance of our society should be regarded as fundamental to the education of every person.”

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