Australia’s First Female Chief Justice of the High Court

On 29 November 2016 it was announced that Justice Susan Kiefel would replace Chief Justice Robert French as Chief Justice of Australia’s High Court.

The High Court was established in 1903 and Chief Justice Kiefel’s appointment marks the end of 113 years of males leading the High Court. She will take office on the first sitting day of the New Year, 30 January 2017.

It was not too long ago that the High Court bench was completely devoid of females.  Next year marks 30 years since Mary Gaudron was the first female to be appointed to the High Court bench in 1987. Although it could have been done sooner, it is fitting that on this anniversary the High Court will now be led by a female.

Chief Justice French is retiring as the Constitution dictates that judges’ appointments expire upon attaining the age of 70. Justice Kiefel was not a surprising replacement, considering she has been on the High Court bench longer than any other judge on the current bench.

Justice Kiefel was nominated by Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, who said she is an “inspiration”.

Justice Kiefel is familiar with breaking down barriers and had an interesting entry to the legal profession. After dropping out of school at 15 she worked as a legal secretary. During her time as a legal secretary she completed high school and studied law part-time at night. She later obtained a Master of Laws at the University of Cambridge. In 1987, she was the first woman in Queensland to be appointed Queen’s Counsel (1987 was evidently a big year for women in the profession!). In 2009 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Griffith University for leading the way for women in the legal profession.

Justice Kiefel’s appointment followed consultation with state attorneys-general and other leaders in the profession. Attorney-General George Brandis described her as the “overwhelmingly favourite candidate.”

President of the Law Council of Australia Stuart Clark welcomed the appointment as a “landmark moment” for the legal system and said that Justice Kiefel has always been a “trailblazer for women in the legal profession… [her] success should serve as an inspiration to all young people considering a career in law.”

When appointed to the High Court in 2007, Justice Kiefel said she was a “lonely tree” in a forest of men during her early years in the profession. She is now the most eminent tree in a landscape of both men and women.

Justice Kiefel told The Australian that she hoped to retain the “respect and confidence of the other branches of government and of the community in the court” in her role as Chief Justice.

The judge replacing Justice Kiefel’s vacated position is Justice James Edelman. He is only 42 years of age, making him the fourth youngest High Court judge in the court’s history.

Interestingly, the High Court has still not had a judge from South Australia – maybe that will be the next barrier to be broken!

Snapshot of the Legal Profession:

The National Profile of Solicitors in 2014 found that of the 66,211 solicitors in Australia in 2014, 51.5% were male and 48.5% were female.

However this almost even split is very different when it comes to the judiciary: this year there are only 350 female judges/magistrates in the Australian judiciary, representing 34.5% of all 1,014 judges and magistrates (a good increase from the mere 8.8% in 1996!) (AIJA Judicial Gender Statistics).

With Chief Justice Kiefel and Justice Edelman’s appointments, the High Court will continue to have 3 females and 4 males on the bench.

Posted in LCOR