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Farewell to a trailblazer: First female Chief Justice bows out to a chorus of praise

Australia’s first female chief justice has been recognised as a national leader and trailblazer for women in law, as the High Court bade her farewell.

Oct 16, 2023, updated Oct 16, 2023
Retiring Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia Susan Mary Kiefel speaks during her Ceremonial Sitting of Farewell at the High Court of Australia in Canberra (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Retiring Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia Susan Mary Kiefel speaks during her Ceremonial Sitting of Farewell at the High Court of Australia in Canberra (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

After a six-year term as the 13th chief justice and 16 years serving the nation’s top court, Susan Kiefel will retire in November.

Speaking at a ceremonial sitting of the High Court of Australia, Law Council of Australia president Luke Murphy reflected on her eminent career.

“Today is a closing chapter in our nation’s legal story,” he said on Monday.

“Your honour has been an exceptional leader of the country (and made) unwavering contributions to justice.”

Chief Justice Kiefel led the judiciary through a whirlwind of cases and controversies, including internal troubles.

In 2020, she apologised to six court staff after an investigation conducted on behalf of the High Court revealed former Justice Dyson Heydon had sexually harassed the judge’s associates.

Mr Heydon emphatically denied the allegations.

She also presided over landmark cases such as Cardinal George Pell’s appeal which led all seven High Court judges to quash his child sexual abuse convictions and rulings on state border closures in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2017, the political careers of several high-politicians including then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce were at the mercy of the High Court when it ruled on whether dual citizens were eligible for election.

Chief Justice Kiefel’s time in the High Court also ushered in a new era for women in law.

Appointed in 2007, she became the third female justice in the court’s history and her entry to the High Court was the first time two women had simultaneously sat on the bench.

Her 2017 promotion made her the first woman to be appointed chief justice.

With Jayne Jagot’s appointment in 2022, Chief Justice Kiefel briefly led the High Court’s first female majority bench.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said her career represented a “significant milestone for the diversity of the federal judiciary.”

Addressing a room studded with stars of the Australian legal profession, Chief Justice Kiefel said she took the High Court position due in part to a sense of duty.

“It would be beneficial for the judiciary and for women in Australia (to see a female justice on the High Court),” she said.

While she noted more work needed to be done for women in the legal profession, she said if she had inspired women to embark on a career in law, then she would be pleased.

Born in Cairns, she left school at 15 for a job as a legal secretary before receiving a Master of Law from Cambridge.

She was admitted to the Queensland Bar in 1975 at 21 and in 1987 became the first woman in Queensland appointed Queen’s Counsel.

Justice Stephen Gageler will take over the top job in November.

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