Since stepping down as a Federal Court judge in 2016, Annabelle Bennett says her biggest challenge is juggling her various roles.
These include her new role as part-time President of the Anti-Discrimination Board of NSW and continuing roles as Chancellor of Bond University, a board member of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, member of the Questacon Advisory Council and Chair of Landservices SA.
Not that Bennett isn’t used to challenges. In addition to her 13 years as a Federal Court judge – often ruling on high-profile intellectual property cases – her impressive career has seen her involved with more than 30 organisations.
Bennett studied cell biology at the University of Sydney and went on to complete a PhD before switching to law.
She was the first UNSW law graduate to be admitted to a superior court and the law school’s first Senior Counsel (after one Queen’s Counsel).
Foreshadowing her current work raising awareness of discrimination, she was the first woman silk to appear in the High Court with a female junior barrister and a female solicitor – something she says wasn’t deliberate.
The gender of the lawyers hadn’t even occurred to her, she says.
Bennett credits her husband, former Commonwealth Solicitor-General David Bennett AC QC, with giving her the confidence to go after new challenges. He was always “talking me up”, she says.
This was fortunate because when she was aged 30 and had two children under three, she was admitted as NSW’s 33rd female barrister.
The couple now have three children – two are lawyers – and four grandchildren. The Anti-Discrimination Board is part of the NSW Department of Justice and administers anti-discrimination laws involving sex, race, age, disability and carer’s responsibility as well as laws around sexual and other forms of harassment. Last year, the board answered 3,424 enquiries and dealt with 891 complaints.
The most common enquiry related to discrimination based on disability followed by race and sex discrimination.
”I can’t recall ever feeling that I was discriminated against. I think in the early 1980s, when I was new to the law, it was just the way it was. Was it hard as a young barrister to break in? Yes, it was. Was it hard to break into the commercial work? Absolutely. It was hardest in those days for other young women who were working their way up in law firms, who might have thought their judgment was called into question if they briefed another woman. There was often a concern that women solicitors would be seen to be briefing the sisterhood for reasons other than objective competence.