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Kiefel CJ reflects on ‘undoubtedly significant decisions’ in High Court’s history

The UNSW Law & Justice fraternity has hosted the annual Hal Wootten Lecture, delivered this year by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel.

user iconLauren Croft 05 December 2022 The Bar
Kiefel CJ reflects on ‘undoubtedly significant decisions’ in High Court’s history
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In her lecture, Kiefel CJ examined past landmark cases that have shaped Australian common law, reflecting on the development of legal principles arising from key cases and highlighting how these cases were the culmination of past judicial “nudges” in the right direction.

Kiefel CJ focused on two landmark decisions: Donoghue v Stevenson and Mabo v Queensland.

Donoghue v Stevenson was “a landmark decision in tort law that stated the principle of when and to whom a duty of care is owed and provided the foundation for the modern law of negligence”.


Her Honour also highlighted the judgments of the High Court of Australia in Mabo v Queensland, which introduced the principle of native title into the Australian legal system.

“These were undoubtedly significant decisions in the development and understanding of the common law, yet the subject with which they dealt had been the subject of previous judicial decisions or discussion resulting in changes of socio-political thinking and executive and legislative action,” Kiefel CJ said in her lecture.

“When consideration is given to these factors, it may be thought that these landmark decisions were, in fact, influenced by them. That, in fact, the earlier cases and events provided more than a ‘little nudge’ in the right direction. They had a major effect on the direction the common law took.”

The Chief Justice also emphasised in her address that Hal Wootten made an important contribution to the recognition of native title principle and to the rights of Indigenous people in Australia. Mr Wootten helped form the Aboriginal Legal Service, jointly presided over the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and sat on the Native Titles Tribunal and the Australian Law Reform Commission. He has an enduring legacy in UNSW’s faculty of law and justice, of which he was foundation chair and dean.

The Hal Wootten Lecture was established in 2006 — and in 2008, Mr Wootten spoke of his belief that “every now and then, there is the opportunity to give a little nudge that sends the law along the direction it ought to go”, which Kiefel CJ made reference to in her own address.

Andrew Lynch, dean of the faculty of law and justice at UNSW, said it was a poignant lecture to a full crowd.

“It was a great honour to welcome Chief Justice Susan Kiefel to deliver the 2022 Hal Wootten Lecture — our annual event honouring the vision and example of UNSW Law & Justice’s founding dean,” he said.

“This year’s lecture returned to an in-person event, and it was wonderful to fill the Law Theatre with a highly engaged audience, including students, staff, alumni and members of the community. Chief Justice Kiefel spoke about the ‘little nudges’ that precede landmark cases in the direction of the common law — referencing cases well known to law students from their very earliest courses.”