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What Judy did next


Cite as: July 2013 87 (7) LIJ, p.21

Social work, song-writing and the law are all listed on Judge Judy Small’s resume.

It would be fair to say that not many newly appointed members of the judiciary get letters of congratulation from music fans the world over. Judge Judy Small did – from people who love the folk songs she has written and performed most of her adult life.

Listing some of the music legends she has performed with – Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Robbie Gilbert, Pete Seeger – at her ceremonial welcome to the Federal Circuit Court on 22 April, federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC said he suspected that was the first and last time he would ever get to do that at a welcome for a judge.

[In his welcome speech, Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court John Pascoe said to be near somebody who had been near Joan Baez was really quite something.]

In her response, Judge Small thanked all the speakers for their kind and gracious comments – and for not making any Judge Judy jokes. By her own calculation, she had heard 957 since her appointment, including one from the driver at Melbourne Airport who greeted her with a sign saying just that the previous week.

Judge Judy Small brings a unique perspective to the Federal Circuit Court bench, having had, until now, three distinct careers – social worker, folk singer and lawyer. She had, she explained, never felt the need to stay put when her thoughts turned to new challenges.

“I was 27 or 28 when I made a conscious decision that I didn’t have to decide what I would do with the rest of my life. I only ever have to decide what I want to do next. And that’s what I have been doing. It’s very liberating. There has never been a plan. It’s been, let’s take this turn and see where we go. It’s brought me here,” Judge Small said.

“Social work, song-writing and the law are all corners of the same field. They are all about people. The things that interest me in life are people and power – who’s got it, what they do with it and for whose benefit. All of those professions have been about that. They have all been about empowering people and protecting the vulnerable so I don’t see them as all that different.”

Despite academic strength – she was captain of the debating team at her Coffs Harbour school and at ease with Latin – the young Judy was told to try social work or teaching because they were good jobs for girls.

“I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone into law then. At the time it didn’t occur to me.”

She opted for social work then psychology at university and in her 20s, guided by a passion for social justice, worked as a psychologist and community worker. Having worked with vulnerable people in the community and wanting to contribute more, Judge Small decided to become a lawyer, graduating from the University of Melbourne in 1990, starting articles at Slater & Gordon in 1998 and being admitted in 1999, aged 46.

“My parents taught me it was important to contribute. And they taught me everybody was equal, nobody was better than or superior to me and I wasn’t better than anybody else. People are just people.

“I care deeply about equal opportunity. I actually remember my grade five teacher explaining the concept. It resonated with me.”

Family law was the former accredited specialist’s focus and from 2009 until her appointment, she served as director for Family, Youth and Children’s Law Services at Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), effectively the largest family law practice in the state. Joining the Federal Circuit Court is a major challenge but not necessarily a change of direction for Judge Small, 60, not least because, initially anyway, she will be doing family law work.

“I see my new role as another way to work with the people who used to be clients at VLA – people who need help. I can help them not as clients, but as somebody who will listen to them, who will facilitate an environment where their rights are upheld. It’s up to me to provide a level playing field for people, including unrepresented litigants, to make sure their voice is heard,” Judge Small said.

“I am sorry to leave VLA, I loved it, but this is a different stage. There, I was in charge of $54 million in taxpayers’ money and a staff of 60-plus lawyers. Here, it’s me, an associate and a deputy.

“Coming to the bench is a very steep learning curve. An hour after my ceremonial sitting I had a costs application. I was straight into it.

“The bench is not a stage or a conference room. I use a different, more authoritative voice. It has surprised me that it seems to come quite naturally. I had some people barracking in court recently and I told them court wasn’t the place for that sort of behaviour and if they didn’t conduct themselves properly they would have to leave. It’s a bit like crowd control at a concert but in a very different setting.

“It is the largest federal court in Australia. My diary is full into next year. I love coming to work. I’ve been waking up earlier in the morning and coming in and loving it.

“I will be doing family work initially but once I get settled and super comfortable I would like to do some migration law and maybe maritime law, who knows. The idea I could get into other areas of the law was one of the attractions of the position. I love practising family law. I have always said there are two kinds of lawyers – family lawyers and wimps. You either love it or you leave it alone. But the idea I could get into other areas of the law is really appealing.”

Running parallel to her social work and then legal practice has been Judge Small’s folk music career. She has released 12 albums and has multiple listings on iTunes under her own label, Crafty Maid Music. Performing at the United Nations Women’s Conference NGO Forum in Beijing in 1995 and winning artist of the year at the Port Fairy Folk Festival in 1997 were career highlights.

For now, Judge Small, who was writing songs and performing at folk festivals as recently as early this year, is leaving folk music behind. “Music and the law require two very different head spaces . . . it became a distraction from my legal work. I sort of feel like I’ve said everything I had to say in songs already.

“But I am looking forward to writing my judgments, when I can knuckle down and examine the technicalities of the law and write. My father was a journalist [on the Coffs Coast Advocate], I have inherited his love of words.

“I can imagine singing a bit in my retirement. There are lots of folk singers older than 70. Pete Seeger turns 94 this year and he is still singing.”

Readers of the LIJ might recognise Judge Small from the cover of the April edition, which was devoted to LGBTI in the legal profession. Twenty-two years old when she came out as gay, Judge Small said neither she nor her family ever thought a thing about it.

“I have just always considered it to be normal, like being left-handed or breathing. I realise there is homophobia but I have just ignored it. I am not the only gay judge in Australia, I just don’t think it’s an issue, although I acknowledge that there are still pockets of prejudice out there in the community,” Judge Small said, adding she was pleased Mr Dreyfus had expressed a commitment to diversity on the bench.

“Diversity means everybody and it’s important the judiciary reflects the community. It needs to be seen to be representative of everybody.”

Alongside the law books on a shelf in Judge Small’s chambers in the Federal Circuit Court building sits a small brown toy bear. It was given to her by a young boy called Tom whom she helped as a family lawyer. The boy is long since grown but the bear remains a powerful reminder to the new judge about where her responsibilities lie.

“That bear is why we do it. It’s a reminder to me that I am here to help people.”

Carolyn Ford


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