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Farewell for Judge Judith Small, Federal Circuit Court of Australia

Farewell for Judge Judith Small, Federal Circuit Court of Australia

By LIV Media


May it please the Court.

I appear on behalf of the Law Institute of Victoria and the solicitors of this state to farewell Your Honour Judith Small as a judge of the Federal Circuit Court.

We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather and pay our respects to their Elders, past and present, and to any Elders with us today.

We are gathered today for a judicial farewell that traditionally would be brimming with family, friends and colleagues all warmly wishing Your Honour the very best as you depart the Bench.

But these are not ordinary days – a pandemic rages outside.

There are just two handfuls of people in the courtroom, and this farewell ceremony is being streamed via the internet to the many others whom we know would prefer to be here.

Indeed, as far as the Law Institute of Victoria is aware, this is the only judicial farewell or welcome that has been held in the state of Victoria for some weeks due to the quarantine conditions.

It is certainly an historic occasion.

Your Honour, it is almost exactly seven years since you were appointed to this Court.

Before accepting the appointment as a judge, you spent nine years at Victorian Legal Aid.

And as we delve further into the past, we know you have been a lawyer, a psychologist working with drug and alcohol dependant clients, and a renowned folk singer.

Some years ago, you described yourself as “a child of the ‘60s”, saying “my performance and songs are political work”.

To have been a “child of the sixties” implies identification with a period filled with profound social change and radical thinking, a time when the social structures were dismantled and reassembled through youthful protest, courage and optimism.

May we suggest, Your Honour, that you have emanated all that through your work, through your songs, and through your strong and determined pursuit of social justice principles and equity.

You have pursued the good fight for the disadvantaged and marginalised.

Above all, you have demonstrated an abiding determination to have the voice and rights of women respected and heard loudly – especially their right to live free from violence.

You initially practised as a psychologist for some years, having gained your credentials in the 1970s.

But you walked away from Psychology and elected to study Law, later describing it as the “best decision” you ever made.

It was a tentative start, though, because in 1982 Your Honour’s considerable talent as a singer and songwriter brought you much acclaim and international success.

Indeed, you supported the Australian band Redgum in its 1983 national tour.

You toured the United States for four months in 1985, and you brought the late Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers to Australia for a joint tour in 1992.

There was much mutual respect and friendship in your musical partnership with Ms Gilbert, who first heard you sing at the 1982 Vancouver Folk Festival where Eric Bogle had invited you to perform.

Ms Gilbert described you as a “tremendously talented, terrific songwriter” and “a witty young woman who could think on her feet”.

That much was evident, we suggest, during a gig at the Southern Cross Club in Woden in 1987, when a rudely loud, non-stop chatterbox in the audience persistently distracted you and others.

You could have lost your cool, or glowered at him.

Instead, Your Honour paused, leaned forward and said to the garrulous gentleman: “I am in the key of G. Do you mind talking in the key of G?”.

That Law degree was finally completed in 1989, though you continued to perform extensively for several years.

In 1990, you received the MO [MOH] Award for being Australian Folk Performer of the Year.

And Your Honour was one of several Australian women – lawyers and politicians among them – whose work was featured by Jocelyn Stutt in her 1993 book, As a Woman: Writing Women’s Lives.

You worked part-time for the Western Suburbs Legal Service for almost a year after completing your degree, and eventually you gained entry to do your articles at Slater & Gordon in 1998.

A year later you were admitted to practice, and very swiftly your interest focused on the often-difficult area of Family Law.

Your Honour worked at the Dandenong office of Victorian Legal Aid for about a year, and returned to Slater & Gordon as an associate in its Family Law practice.

In 2004, you took on the formidable challenge of managing the Family Law service at Victorian Legal Aid, and in 2009 you were appointed acting director – and then director – of Family, Youth and Children’s Law Services at Legal Aid.

We would like to pause briefly here to let you know how loved and admired you were, and remain, at Legal Aid.

Brigid Jenkins, the program manager of Family Law Services at VLA, says you were her role model.

She says you nurtured young lawyers, because you wanted all of them to reach their full potential.

You took time to discuss the issues the VLA lawyers were tackling.

Indeed, another senior VLA lawyer can recall some years ago, when one of her clients was suicidal, you took the time to telephone that VLA lawyer.

You talked and supported her through the troubling crisis, and de-briefed her afterwards.

Those generous acts mean everything to young lawyers, and your worldly experience, kindness and empathy was very much appreciated.

In 2013, you were awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for your “significant service to folk music as a songwriter and recording artist”.

That same year, you joined this Court.

As a judge, you have always been thoroughly prepared, and you exhibited solid awareness of the range of cultural issues, potential safety risks to clients and others, as well as the acute dynamics of cases.

You have demonstrated patience, especially with self-represented litigants.

Lawyers who have stood before you in your Court praise your straightforward manner, the care you took to explain to clients what was happening and why.

And they hail your commitment to putting the interests of the children absolutely to the fore.

While at this Court, you have been a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Justice committee, and a member of the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity committee.

You also took charge of steering the commencement of a hearing list specifically for Indigenous people.

Brigid Jenkins of VLA says she, like many others, will be sad that you will not be here to witness the operation of that list in full swing.

On your appointment in 2013, the then-attorney-general for the Commonwealth, Mark Dreyfus, QC, hailed your personal qualities, saying:

Your rare combination of practical pursuits has given you a rich insight into humanity, and the hallmarks of your legal career including integrity, passion for advocacy, compassion and strong commitment to justice …

Your Honour, you once told aspiring lawyers how rewarding it was to be a judicial officer and to have – and I quote – “people trust me with decisions about the future relationships they will have with their children … “

You said: “It is a great privilege to be able to assist people at times of crisis in their lives, and I am always mindful that with every privilege comes responsibility.”

You also told them to follow their passion, saying while they might not get rich financially, their work with some of the community’s most vulnerable people would generate enormous satisfaction and provide great lessons about life.

Your Honour, on behalf of the Law Institute of Victoria and its members, I wish you the very best for your future as you create the next phase in your life’s rich tapestry.

May it please the Court.

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