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Welcome Justice Virginia Bell

News

Cite as: (2009) 83(04) LIJ, p.32

Justice Virginia Bell Was Welcomed To The High Court Of Australia On 3 February.
Among The Speakers Was LCA President John Corcoran. This Is An Edited Version Of His Speech.

It gives me great pleasure to appear on behalf of the Law Council of Australia (LCA) and its constituent bodies on the occasion of your Honour’s appointment to the High Court of Australia.

Today, your Honour celebrates another “first day” on the job, and looking back at your career there has been a considerable number of these.

From the Redfern Legal Centre, as a “new” barrister in chambers, as a public defender, as counsel, as counsel assisting, as a judge and then as an appellate court judge and now in this honourable Court.

On each and every “first day”, there has been a new door to open and new skills to acquire, all the while using the skills you have brought with you. And to this place your Honour has brought the skills of listening, of compassion, of questioning, of advocacy and of persuasion, along with a broad and applied knowledge of the Law.

As several of your Honour’s strongest supporters have been keen to stress, your proven skills are broad, and your capacity to acquire and demonstrate new skills remarkable.

And that is why, when a colleague responded to your appointment to this Court by sending you a copy of the Australian Constitution with a “post- it” note at Chapter 3, s72 “Judges’ appointment”, inscribed “You are here”, it was a message of congratulations not just to you, but also to those who had the good sense to make the appointment, and to the Australian community who will be well served by all your strengths and abilities.

Given your Honour’s life-long passion for and commitment to the Law and social justice, one could not think of a more fitting and able person to sit on the highest court of our land and, hopefully, adjudicate on possible breaches of human rights.

These days the doors into courts must be secure – but your Honour’s first well-known legal experience of secure doors was with the cell doors of police lock ups, remand and sentence prisons. Your commitment to the economically and socially disadvantaged members of our community is evidenced by your practice of criminal Law. Your advocacy on behalf of your clients was admired by all.

No doubt there will be changes in criminal Law and procedure which your Honour will encounter here from time to time: cases which will not only benefit from your deep knowledge of criminal Law, but also the depth of your practical experience in its application both within and without the courts. We have no doubt that your Honour’s expertise in and knowledge of criminal Law and procedure will be of considerable benefit to this Court.

One unusual but revealing aspect of your experience was your time in the mid-1990s NSW Royal Commission into Police Corruption.

There you headed a successful team in which your loyalty, fairness and tactical skills were much admired. Your Honour’s team members were investigators and Lawyers. It was there, too, that you used yet another door which the media labelled the “roll over door”.

A person of interest to the Commission would attend for questioning. They would, in response to carefully crafted lines of questioning, commit themselves to a tale of innocence. They would then be invited to wait a moment, whereupon a side door would open, a person would appear, and they knew, as surely as a condemned person on the scaffold knew, that they had tied their own knots and sealed their own fate.

I have said enough on your Honour’s experience – although, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr famously remarked: “The life of the Law has not been logic; it has been experience”. Holmes also pointed out that “The Law embodies the story of a nation’s development ...it cannot be dealt with as if it contained the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics”.

A welcome aspect of our own nation’s development has been the recognition that gender is not a fit ground on which to limit opportunity and advancement.

Your Honour is just the fourth woman to join this Court and it is now quite possible that during your time here the majority of members will be women.

Your Honour’s abilities have been rightfully and appropriately recognised, and it is certainly a different “judicial world” today than when your Honour commenced practising as a solicitor, when in NSW there were no female judges on that state’s District or Supreme Courts.

Your ability has been proclaimed by those best equipped to objectively assert it – your peers. And that is why you, and we, can be so confident that in this new job, as a member of another team, going through yet another door, your Honour will enjoy another challenge in your distinguished legal career.

An appointment to the High Court is an important occasion of enormous significance, both for the appointee and for the nation.

We welcome your appointment and speak on behalf of the profession in wishing you a long and distinguished career on this Court. The LCA is certain you will excel in your new role.

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