Susan Kiefel sworn in as Australia’s first female chief justice of the High Court
Australia now has its first female chief justice of the High Court after Susan Kiefel was sworn in on Monday.
The occasion was marked by a ceremony in which the attorney general, George Brandis, described her life as a “truly great Australian story”, one to “inspire women and men alike”.
Kiefel said that it had taken more than 80 years from when women were able to vote in 1902, and when the High Court was established in 1903, for the first female justice of the High Court, Mary Gaudron, to be appointed in 1987.
Kiefel was appointed to the court in 2007 after serving on the federal court since 1994.
Kiefel noted the composition of the High Court had changed – it now has three female justices including justices Virginia Bell and Michelle Gordon.
“The appointment of more women to this court recognises that there are now women who have the necessary legal ability and experience as well as the personal qualities to be a justice of this court,” she said. “There seems no reason to think that that situation will not be maintained in the future. It may well improve.”
Kiefel, who was appointed to succeed Robert French in November, began her career as a legal secretary after leaving school at 15. Brandis remarked this may seem “an unpromising start for a future chief justice” but praised her “steely determination” as she completed secondary school at night.
Brandis noted that, when Kiefel was called to the bar in 1975, at the age of 21, it was a “characteristically brave move” because there were “hardly any women in practice at the bar in Brisbane”.
Kiefel’s appointment caps a career of firsts: she was the first woman in Queensland to be appointed Queen’s counsel, in 1987, and the first to serve on the supreme court of Queensland, in 1993.
Brandis acknowledged that Kiefel had been “the first woman to occupy a particular office” at several points in her career. “But your success has had nothing to do with your gender and everything to do with your intelligence, diligence and skill,” he said.
Kiefel told the ceremony that judges served not “for the purpose of personal acknowledgement or the enhancement of reputation”.
Kiefel spoke about the importance of the court’s role upholding the constitution and its responsibility to respectfully declare when legislative or executive power had been exceeded.
She said wryly that she would bask in the praise she had received at the ceremony because it “could in the future be replaced by criticism from other quarters”.
Kiefel spoke of her personal connection to three of the six chief justices since she started her legal career, including her friendship with French.
“The chief justices who have preceded me have been persons of the highest integrity and ability,” she said. “I have been given a great responsibility. With the cooperation of my colleagues, I trust that I shall discharge it well and justify the confidence that has been reposed in me.”
In a lecture in 2014 to the International Congress of Comparative Law in Vienna, Kiefel said there were benefits to the increasing number of women judges, including that women would be encouraged to remain in the legal profession and senior women could mentor their junior colleagues.
“In a wider societal sense, these appointments facilitate the acceptance of women as persons having public authority. The importance of this acceptance should not be undervalued.”
When French retired, effective at midnight on Sunday, and Kiefel was elevated to the chief justice role, James Edelman was appointed to the vacancy. Edelman will be sworn in on Monday afternoon.