HIGH COURT Justice Michael Kirby was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) last week.
Addressing new law graduates at the law faculty’s graduation ceremony on the topic “At Our Going Out and Your Coming In”, Justice Kirby, who is preparing to retire from the High Court, pondered the question of what someone going out of the legal profession could say to those who were going in.
During the occasional address, Justice Kirby said that there is much that is good about the law, the profession, the judiciary and the legal institutions in Australia. He said he has never, for example, been offered a bribe or inducement to decide a case — something that could not be said by members of the judiciary in most countries.
“An independent judiciary, vigilant to its independence, is the surest mark of a mature society governed by laws, not by brute power,” he said. “Those that are going out hand this high tradition to you.
“At your coming in, you must scrupulously maintain that tradition. You must strengthen it and safeguard it, for without law there is tyranny,” Justice Kirby said.
He also acknowledged, however, that there are faults in the law, and that while in cases such as Mabo, Wik and Dietrich judges could “re-express” and strengthen the law, in other cases this was impossible and outcomes have seemed unjust.
“Despite law reform reports, parliaments often neglect the demonstrated need for reform. We cannot afford to be starry-eyed about our profession,” Justice Kirby warned. “At our going out, we who did our best to reform the law must hand it on to you who are coming in.
“Never be content with injustice. Question old rules in new contexts of rapidly changing times.”
One of the biggest challenges for the new generation of lawyers, Justice Kirby said, would be to “change mental gears” and learn to “think globally”, as advances in international law increasingly influence domestic Australian law.
“Never accept that these are developments irrelevant to our Australian domestic law,” he said. “Others of this campus are thinking globally all their lives. A law school cannot be a little enclave of parochialism, nor can the legal profession or the judiciary.
“At your coming in, you must change the focus of the law. This is your special challenge and chance,” he said,
Justice Kirby also warned that there was “no room for complacency” when it comes to issues of human rights and the treatment of minorities. While conditions for Aboriginees, Asian Australians, women and homosexuals in the legal system have improved, he said that there was still a long way to go.
“The ignorance and oppression are not yet over. Inequality and discrimination have not yet stopped. Wrongs and injustices still occur in the law to this day, even for me, an officeholder under the nation’s constitution — so it’s a work in progress,” he said.
Wishing the new graduates good fortune, he urged them to use their degrees to make a different in Australia and in the world. “In the law we have particular opportunities to choose to do good, to be of help, to stand for justice and to avoid inequality, complacent indifference and formalism,” he said.
“Make a difference. When you can, right wrongs.”
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