Former chief justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Gerard Brennan, has passed away at the age of 94.
Sir Gerard AC KBE GBS was the 10th chief justice of the High Court of Australia. He was appointed to the position in 1995 by then-prime minister Paul Keating. Sir Gerard served a total of 17 years on the nation’s highest bench (1981-1998), the last three of which were as chief justice.
He is perhaps best known as the presiding justice in the High Court’s famous native title decision in Mabo, following which his honour led the court at a time when it was under intense criticism for judicial activism following its decision in Wik.
Sir Gerard was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Order of the British Empire – Knights Commander (Civil) (KBE) in 1981, and Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) on 26 January 1988 in recognition of service to the law.
The High Court said in a statement: “Sir Gerard’s contribution to the jurisprudence of the court, and to the legal system more generally, was profound.
“He was a model of judicial restraint. He was a man of deep humanity and was held in great esteem and affection by those who had the fortune to sit with him.
“The justices of the court extend their sympathies to Sir Gerard’s family. A ceremonial sitting of the court to honour him will be held in the August sittings of the court.”
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC MP said he was "deeply saddened" by Sir Gerard's passing.
"Sir Gerard's lead judgment on the Mabo case recognised, for the first time under Australian law, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and their rights to the land, according to their own laws and customs, not only pre-dated, but survived, settlement, and continue to this day," the A-G remarked.
The 30th anniversary of that landmark judgment, Mr Dreyfus noted, which overturned the "shameful myth of 'terra nullius', is a reminder of his great work and enduring legacy".
Law Council resident Tass Liveris added: “Sir Gerard made a remarkable contribution to the law and jurisprudence and his legacy will echo long into the future. Despite his formidable abilities, his unwavering reputation for decency and thoughtfulness provide a shining model to follow.”
And Australian Bar Association president Dr Matt Collins AM QC noted: “Sir Gerard was one of the finest jurists this country has produced. He inspired generations of lawyers with his intellect, but also his deep sense of humanity. His passing is a great loss to the whole of the justice community.”
The NSW Bar Association (of which Sir Gerard was an honorary life member) said that “throughout his distinguished career in the law, Sir Gerard led the way in establishing and upholding rights for First Nations people, beginning in 1974 when he represented the Northern Land Council in the Woodward Royal Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory”.
Sir Gerard was born in Toowoomba, Queensland, in 1928 and was admitted to the Queensland Bar in December 1951, where he practised mainly in common law and constitutional law. He took silk in 1965. He was president of the Queensland Bar between 1974 and 1976 and president of the Australian Bar Association during that same period.