Chief Justice Kiefel farewells the High Court
The first female Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia has farewelled the bench in a ceremonial sitting.
Chief Justice the Honourable Susan Mary Kiefel AC informed the court earlier this year that she would retire on 5 November, slightly earlier than the constitutionally mandated retirement age of 70.
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Kiefel CJ retires after 16 years of dedicated service to the Australian High Court and more than 30 years of service to the Australian judiciary.
The Honourable Mark Dreyfus KC MP, Attorney‑General for the Commonwealth; Luke Murphy, president of the Law Council of Australia; and Peter Dunning KC, president of the Australian Bar Association, all paid tribute to Kiefel CJ, calling it a “great privilege” to have worked with her, that Her Honour has been an “exceptional leader” and that her “commitment to the promotion of certainty has done a great deal for the efficient development of the law in Australia”.
In her farewell speech, Kiefel CJ thanked members of the Council of Chief Justices of Australia and New Zealand for attending, as well as her friends and family and former associates and executive assistants.
“I am proud to have been a member of the Australian judiciary for the past 30 years. I have learned much from other judges and have made many friends amongst them. I can attest to the high standard of the work of judges in Australia and to their diligence. Judges bear a great responsibility in the work that they do. The appointment of judges is also a great responsibility,” she said.
“I believe that most lawyers who accept appointment as judges have a sense of vocation. They understand that it is a public duty which they are undertaking and that it will consume a large part of their life. They know that the work of the courts is essential to our society, and they appreciate that as judges, they collectively form part of an institution and that it is the maintenance of that institution and its reputation which is important.
“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.”
During Her Honour’s time as Chief Justice, the courts in Australia faced a number of challenges brought on by COVID-19, with in-person hearings made impossible and social distancing creating “other difficulties”.
Kiefel CJ commended the courts and the legal profession as they adapted to these difficult situations and dealt with video‑link hearings and other tech.
“It may be that one result of the experiences of this period will be that the use of video link will be maintained for some hearings, particularly of short matters, because of their cost-effectiveness and now that courts and the profession have become more familiar with their use. But I believe the experience of these hearings also confirmed the importance of in‑person hearings. From the perspective of an appellate court, such as this court, in‑person hearings are essential for proper advocacy and for dialogue with the bench.
“My journey to a life in the law has sometimes been 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,” Kiefel CJ continued.
“I enjoyed my career as a barrister and developed an enduring respect for the legal profession, the Bar in particular. It is often said, for it is true, that the courts could not function without the assistance of a legal profession which has high standards of legal skills and ethical behaviour and whose members are conscious of their duties to the court. The importance of the quality of legal argument has been even more evident to me as a member of this court.”
Her Honour’s legal career commenced in 1975 when she was called to the Queensland Bar at just 21, the minimum age at the time. She had never practised as a solicitor, and upon her admission, there were only two other women practising at the Queensland Bar. This, Kiefel CJ said, was a decision she has never regretted.
“I had always assumed that I would find the work of a judge to be satisfying and that it would provide me with a sense that 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,” she continued.
“Much has been achieved since then. It is my hope that now, women lawyers will not feel the same sense of duty to accept appointment at an early age. There is still much to be done within the profession to advance women, particularly as leaders in it and as advocates in the highest courts. That may be better assisted by women remaining as senior counsel at the Bar or as senior solicitors and having a longer experience of leadership roles whilst at the same time providing a role model and being a mentor to other lawyers.”
Lastly, Kiefel CJ thanked her colleagues and past associates, whose “enthusiasm for the law” has, at times, “sustained” her.
“It has been a great privilege to have served as a justice of this court and to have been the Chief Justice of a court which states and develops the law for our society.
“I am grateful to my colleagues, past and present, for the many valuable discussions we have had in the course of decision making. I have had the good fortune to observe some of the best legal minds in the country at work. I thank them for their collegiality and for the support which has been given to me as Chief Justice, especially in difficult times,” she concluded.
“I thank my family, my sister in particular, for their understanding and support. My most heartfelt thanks are reserved for my husband, Michael, whose support and counsel I have always been able to rely upon. It remains to congratulate my colleague and successor, Justice Stephen Gageler and Justice Beech‑Jones and to wish them and the court well for the future.”