Final call at the High Court for Justice Gleeson

Hailing from the Class of 1962 to become one of the country's most significant legal practitioners, the chief justice of the High Court is preparing to empty his chair and make way for the next…

Promoted by Lawyers Weekly 25 July 2008 Big Law
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Hailing from the Class of 1962 to become one of the country's most significant legal practitioners, the chief justice of the High Court is preparing to empty his chair and make way for the next generation. Angela Priestley speaks to Chief Justice Murray Gleeson on turning 70.

The Sydney chambers of the Chief Justice of the High Court are simple. The view is spectacular, the library immaculate and the desk, meeting table, lounge and even the jug of water hold details that give away their fine quality. Aboriginal artwork hangs from the walls, above a tidy workspace that's noticeably lacking a PC.

Chief Justice Murray Gleeson is in the final days of a long, public, legal career. With 10 years in the NSW Supreme Court, followed by 10 in the High Court and following an earlier career at the Bar and in private practice, Justice Gleeson turns 70 next month, marking the end of his position as head of Australia's highest court.

Following his very significant legal career, the Chief Justice says his initial plans are obvious: a long-awaited holiday is in order, before determining his next step. As for his wife of 43 years, Justice Gleeson says she's keen on having him around the house a little bit more. "With the emphasis on the words 'little bit'," he says.

The holiday is well in order, but that's not to say that the past 10 years have seen Justice Gleeson participate in little but life in the court. Playing tennis every Saturday with friends and walking an hour every morning before breakfast, he says life outside the court will provide the time, and the energy, to increase his rate of exercise and sporting activities.

Meanwhile, his interests extend to academia, to history, family and learning French. Ultimately, Justice Gleeson says he's looking forward to the free time, and one day being able to read in a couple of different languages.

"I hope one of the things that retirement will offer me is the chance to open up new interests," he says.

That's not to say that an interest in law will pass upon retirement. While he's adamant that such interest is not a "passion", he's sure he'll continue to appreciate the virtue of the subject. "The best thing about the law is that you're learning all the time," he says. "I hope I'll continue to learn about the law until I lose the capacity to learn about anything."

Leaving the High Court on turning 70 is not Justice Gleeson's decision. His compulsory departure orders are due, giving him no choice but to accept the exit. In a roundabout way, though, it's a requirement that the Chief Justice had a role in determining.

"I voted in favour of the referendum that amended the Constitution to bring about the result that justices of the High Court come to the end of their term at the age of 70," he says.

In hindsight, it was a vote he would have further considered: "I'm still in favour of having a maximum age for judges - but I regret now that it was put in the Constitution rather than an act of Parliament."

Were it an act of Parliament, compulsory departure for judges would have been a little more flexible and altered from time to time to allow for the circumstances of judges on a case-by-case basis.

It's now, however, a slight regret given his current circumstances. "I'm not suggesting for a moment that I would like to have the opportunity to stay on after 70, I've been there quite long enough," he says.

Finalising a celebrated career is a common theme across Australia's legal elite. Given that so many big names came from the class of 1962, the time has come for the most powerful of the Australian legal landscape to close some doors.

Listing off the big names of Justice Gleeson's graduate class reminds us that the centralisation of such talent was far from a coincidence, or necessarily a concession to the teachings of the school itself.

Instead, Justice Gleeson says, it was a matter of it being the only law school in Sydney.

"It strikes me as hardly surprising that so many people from that class went on to various places," he says. "There were no other law schools in NSW at that time. I knew personally the lawyers of my generation, all of them. I think that class of ours may have done well partly because of a lack of competition."

Today, these colleagues, including Justice Michael Kirby, walk corridors with the same peers they once knew as students back in 1962. Justice Gleeson says he maintains good professional relationships with such contacts: "We usually have a tea or coffee together after a case is argued and we discuss the case," he says. "From time to time the court has a formal dinner, but we still meet on a daily basis when we're in Canberra."

The profession has changed drastically since 1962, and Justice Gleeson notes that such changes have had some positive - and not so positive - results. "The growing size of the profession has produced some consequences that work in some ways for the better and, in other ways, for the worse."

The positives of growth could very well come from the lack of competition of law schools and the limited places available from the 1960s. Once criticised as a club, growth within the law industry is opening the spectrum to a bigger pool of talent, characteristics and knowledge.

"The profession used to be accused of being clubby, and that was a fair criticism," says Justice Gleeson. "But on the other hand, professional people related to one another in a way that had some advantages over the present situation."

The profession has also seen a fair amount of commercialisation in Justice Gleeson's time. He sees it as a disappointing progression, with law prompting a large business that spells excessive profits for the firms involved.

With these profits, a rise in costs for clients stands in the way of justice, especially where litigation is concerned, Justice Gleeson says. "All over the world, and at all times, costs and delays have been big problems for citizens getting access to the law," he says.

In Australia, Justice Gleeson sees such costs as a moral responsibility: "I'm not generally in favour of price control or price fixing, but I think there are ethical obligations that legal professionals have to keep in mind, and costs are included in that.

Costs will continue to rise and Justice Gleeson expresses concern for the clients. "I believe most clients wouldn't have any idea, and would not have a way of finding out, whether the amount of time that is devoted by lawyers to a case is reasonable."

One of Justice Gleeson's esteemed colleagues, possibly not from the class of 1962 but potentially from the same school, could be his replacement.

Debate is mounting as to just who will be selected to the post and while Justice Gleeson will keep a close eye on developments after his tenure, he does not envy his successor.

"Do I wish I was starting all over again? No," he says.