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Welcome for Judge Sarah Leighfield, County Court of Victoria

Welcome for Judge Sarah Leighfield, County Court of Victoria

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 welcome Your Honour Sarah Leighfield as a judge of the County Court of Victoria.

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.

Your Honour, it is a great pleasure to formally welcome you to this Court today, not least because this is one of the few judicial ceremonies that have taken place in the state of Victoria in the past year.

Indeed, Your Honour has already been here, inside the County Court, presiding over cases in the criminal division, for nine months since your appointment on June 10.

And this is certainly not your first experience on the Bench. From 2016, you sat in the Magistrates’ Court, firstly in Bendigo and more recently here in Melbourne.

You should know that your colleagues at the Magistrates’ Court, some of whom are here today, dearly miss your endless enthusiasm, your whip-smart intellect, your compassion and your chatter very much.

They say you were the “perfect magistrate” because while Law is your passion, so too are people and their stories.

Understanding what is really happening in people’s lives, why they have come before the courts, and what needs to be done to ensure they might avoid returning – these are fundamental touchstones of your character and the way that you work.

Yet Law was not an obvious career choice when you were young. You wanted to be a marine biologist.

That made some sense. You did a lot of maths and science at school, but fortunately for us, that did not transpire.

At school, you were a superb athlete, a top swimmer, gaining medals in state championships and going on to the nationals

 Your swimming schedule included a gruelling regime that required you to travel from your home town in Geelong to Melbourne, twice a day, for morning and afternoon training sessions – all while you were still at school.

 But from Year 11, Your Honour focused more on track and cross-country, again representing Victoria at national championships.

 Your feature events ranged from the 800-metre and 5-kilometre events, to 10-kilometre and 21-kilometre cross-country.

 Law came into your life almost by accident when you were in Year 10 and were assigned to some work-experience with a small legal practice in Geelong.

 You were immediately struck by how interesting and varied the work could be – how it involved stories of real people’s lives, not just theory.

 That inspired you to do both a Bachelor of Arts and a Law degree at the University of Melbourne, where your studies included Japanese language.

 It was in Law that you truly excelled, graduating in the year 2000 with the Jessie Leggatt Scholarship; the EJB Nunn Scholarship for top student in the final honours class list; the Joan Rozanove QC Memorial Prize for highest ranked female Law student in the honours list; and the venerable Supreme Court Prize.

All this would give any student a veritable entrée into the elite world of blue-chip law firms, but the prospect of drafting contracts and sealing commercial deals were not at all appealing to Your Honour.

Instead of doing your articles at the top end of town, where you had a multitude of offers, Your Honour sought an interview with the criminal defence team at Galbally & O’Bryan.

 After initially being offered a role in Galbally’s family law division, Your Honour played hardball, telling them that if you did not get into crime at Galbally’s then you would simply go the big firms.

 That did it. You secured an interview with the legendary Peter Ward, who quizzed Your Honour on what you, of all people, could possibly bring to the world of criminal defence work, and how you – with credentials that made you a prime candidate for commercial or civil law – figured you could endure criminal work.

 Your Honour went home a bit dejected and said to your mother Chris – who is your close confidant, travelling companion and sounding board – “Mum, I think they really hate me”.

 Well, that was clearly not the case. Ultimately you spent almost three years at Galbally & O’Bryan, doing articles under Peter Ward and becoming one of the firm’s shining young assets.

 You appeared regularly in the Magistrates’ Court, the County Court and the Children’s Court. You briefed counsel, liaised with prosecuting authorities, police and Legal Aid, and you managed a very large number of indictable and summary files across all areas of crime.

 Your Honour joined the Bar in 2004, and over 12 years you became a much in-demand specialist for sexual offences cases, appearing in long and complex trials and appeals for accused former priests, Christian Brothers, teachers and others.

 Your close friends say you are never judgmental, you are meticulous to a fault, eternally patient and genuinely respectful of everyone who comes into your orbit.

 We are told that during a particularly difficult cross-examination in a sexual offences case at Geelong Magistrates’ Court, you had the prosecutor in total awe.

 “There were no theatrics,” the prosecutor told us. “Here was the most precise cross-examination. [Your Honour] was very respectful of the complainant, and I just put down my pen and knew there was no coming back from that – I’m done.”

 During your time as Magistrate in Bendigo you gained the respect and admiration of a generation of practitioners who benefited from your skill, dedication and compassion as a judicial officer.

 Solicitors contacted us in anticipation of today’s welcome, wanting to express their gratitude to you for the many hours of formal and informal mentoring you provided to Victoria Legal Aid, Community Legal Service and private practitioners throughout the Loddon-Campaspe region and elsewhere.

 They thanked you, also, for your provision of Professional Legal Education sessions over many years.

 You are also recognised as an enduring mentor to nearly a generation of young lawyers, women especially. You have helped them gain access and facilitated, pre-COVID, video links to Women In Crime – ensuring regional practitioners could tap into this well-regarded network of women who are working in criminal law.

 Your Honour knows from experience how difficult it can be starting out in law.

 You described yourself as “clueless” when you first left university, having little idea how to formulate a career in law, how to open doors, who to lean on and how to create networks of mentors. Yet you have paid back in spades.

 It was your mother who instilled in you one of your abiding standards – an ideal underscored by Peter Ward. It is this: “It does not matter who people are. You are respectful to them; they are human beings.”

 And you, too, have said: “One of the most important things is being a good human being. Even if you have been charged with a horrific crime, you still should be treated with respect. That is not something all members of the community would agree with, but it’s true.”

 Those ideals underpin everything you have done in Law and in the justice system. You are committed to therapeutic justice, to empathy and to seeking just outcomes for all who come before the court system.

 Although clearly a loss for the Magistrates’ Court, on behalf of the lawyers of this state, we wish Your Honour a long and fruitful career.

 May it please the Court.


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