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FIRST AND ONLY FEMALE HIGH COURT JUDGE

First and only female high court judge

It would be a disappointing situation if the only reason that disturbing behaviour by a male High Court judge was called out was because of the propitious appointment of a female Chief Justice of the High Court, Susan Kiefel.

This would appear, however, to be the case. At least two male judges had previously been informed of Dyson Heydon’s behaviour towards his young associates, including the male Chief Justice at the time, Justice Gerard Brennan.

One must question whether this disturbing tale of the sexually predatory behaviour of one of the male High Court judges would have come to light if not for the Chief Justice Susan Kiefel.  Justice Kiefel was prepared to believe the accounts of the experiences described by the six young past female associates of Dyson Heydon which emerged during the independent inquiry Justice Kiefel established.

Some of these young women left law forever after the experience of working for Justice Heydon. These young women were described as the ‘brightest of the bright’. They were the highest achievers in their final university year of law.  The position of an associate to a High Court justice is considered the most sought-after position a first-year graduate can be offered.

The skewed figures at the highest levels of the law in Australia speak to the gender power imbalance. Since 1903 there have been 53 High Court judges, and 13 of those have served as Chief Justice. All 53 of those have been white, 48 have been men and five have been women. The present Chief justice Susan Kiefel has been the sole representative of 50% of our population, the women, in that highly prestigious position. There are seven judges of the High Court at any one time.

Beside the Chief Justice Susan Kiefel (2007) we now have Susan Crennan (2005) and Virginia Bell (2009). The High Court now has 3 women and 4 men which is the most gender equal it has ever been. (Georgie Dent, contributing editor of Women’s Agenda, 2020).

Justice Susan Kiefel established an independent inquiry into the behaviour of Dyson Heydon. It has been refreshing to read the honest and forthright comments Susan Kiefel announced in a public statement after the adverse findings against Heydon.

The victims of this sexual harassment were publicly apologised to by Justice Kiefel, who stated clearly that the High Court was ashamed that this behaviour had been ignored, and the women involved had spent years waiting for an opportunity to tell their story. Perhaps having a woman in the most powerful position in the land encouraged them to find their voices.

If that is what it takes, we need many more women in positions of power.

Annie Young

01/07/20203

This article has been prepared by WR Law. The information provided should not be relied upon as legal advice. You should speak with Rosa Raco directly about your specific circumstances via email rraco@wrlaw.com.au or phone 03 54996131.