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Mortimer CJ’s ‘distinguished and illustrious career’ lauded at swearing-in

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus and numerous other leading lawyers praised the character and successes of the Federal Court’s new Chief Justice, Debra Mortimer, at Her Honour’s swearing-in earlier this week.

user iconJess Feyder 20 April 2023 Big Law
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Monday (17 April) saw the Honourable Chief Justice Debra Mortimer swear in to her role of Chief Justice at a ceremonial sitting of the Full Court of Australia.

Mr Dreyfus introduced the ceremony: “It’s a great privilege to be here to congratulate your Honour on your appointment as the Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia — the fifth Chief Justice to lead the Federal Court, and the first female Chief Justice of the court since it was established in 1976.”

“Your Honour’s appointment to this court is another success in a distinguished and illustrious career.”


Mr Dreyfus detailed key aspects of Mortimer CJ’s life: “I’m told that your Honour was an inquisitive and energetic child.”

“Your Honour is also known to have inherited your father’s gymnastic skills,” he said. “The flexibility and dynamism inherent in that sport is now reflected in your ability to view the legal matters before you from all angles.”

Mr Dreyfus also commented that those who knew Her Honour during her younger years describe her as “an incisive thinker, with a deep sense of moral purpose”.

In pursuing her articles in 1987, Mortimer CJ gained an early appreciation for the way in which the law affects the lives of ordinary people, Mr Dreyfus highlighted.

While her Honour’s practice was largely as a barrister, principally in public law, with a focus on the areas of administrative and constitutional law, and anti-discrimination and extradition law, Mr Dreyfus noted: “Your Honour could easily turn your hand to any area of law, and had an unerring, forensic capability, winning so many witnesses.”

Speaking of her time teaching at Monash University and the University of Melbourne, Mr Dreyfus stated: “Your Honour was noted to have the ability to make the law sing in a manner that makes it accessible to lay people and powerful in its application — generous and incisive, in equal measure.”

Mr Dreyfus also pointed to some of her most outstanding awards: the Law Council of Australia’s President’s Medal, the Tim McCoy Award for community and legal work, the Law Institute of Victoria President’s Award, and the Australian Human Rights Commission Law Award.

Mr Dreyfus continued: “As the first female appointee, Your Honour continues to pave the way for those who follow in your footsteps.”

Peter Dunning KC, president of the Australian Bar Association, also spoke at the ceremony and made note of the gender balance being seen in the court.

“This court now has more than a third of its members as females and is heading towards balance, diversity in all matters to which we all strive,” stated Mr Dunning.

Elizabeth Bennett SC, vice-president of the Victorian Bar Association, shared a dash of humour in her speech: “Your Honour today joins an exclusive club; you join the Crowded House, Phar Lap and the pavlova as wonderful Kiwi creations that Australia has shamelessly appropriated for itself.”

Ms Bennet SC continued: “Your Honour’s acumen and clarity of legal thought is legendary.”

Speaking to the character of Mortimer CJ, Ms Bennet SC described one occasion where Mortimer CJ was visiting country and walking traditional owners along a remote coast.  

“Your guides, embarrassed, said the terrain ahead was not suitable for your Honour’s shoes. To the considerable shock of all present, your Honour happily continued barefoot,” she told the court.

“Your Honour has always been able to marry the dignity, seriousness, and importance of the work of the court with the empathy and mutual respect for all who come before it.”

“You remain a figure of some inspiration to us, and for that, you have our gratitude.”

Luke Murphy, president of the Law Council of Australia, and Tania Wolff, president of the Law Institute of Victoria, also spoke at the swearing-in.

Mortimer CJ said: “When I think back to the long list of the distinguished judges I appeared before in this court and the distinguished judges with whom I’ve sat over the last 10 years, it is a mind-altering experience to be here in the middle of the bench today.”

“My colleagues on this court have been enthusiastic and supportive, and I am honoured to sit with all of them today.”

Her Honour continued: “The judges and all staff of this court take pride in continuing to make a contribution to the administration of justice in Australia.”

“Today, we can reflect on what holds us together as we undertake that task, and in this magnificent building, I ask you all to pay attention to the inspired conception of Michael Black to have the words of the Australian constitution written on the windows, thus wrapping the constitution around this court and around the other courts in this building the physical manifestation of a legal truth.”