Australia’s first female High Court Chief Justice, Susan Kiefel, announced her early retirement at the end of a court hearing yesterday. Chief Justice Kiefel declared that she will leave the court on 5 November 2023, a few months before turning 70. The Australian Constitution requires that High Court justices retire at 70 years old.
Chief Justice Kiefel was first appointed to the High Court in 2007, having formerly served as a judge on the Federal Court of Australia. She replaced Robert French as Chief Justice in 2017.
Upon her appointment as Chief Justice, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “Susan Kiefel’s story is one that is an inspiration.”
After leaving school at 15, Chief Justice Kiefel worked as a legal secretary. Eventually, she decided to study law part-time and later studied at the University of Cambridge. She was admitted to the bar in 1975 and became Queensland’s first female Queen’s Counsel in 1987.
During a speech at the Australian Women Lawyers Conference, Chief Justice Kiefel reflected on the evolution of the legal profession. Despite significant progress, she acknowledged that men still receive more opportunities than women, even though female law students outnumbered male law students at universities.
Chief Justice Kiefel conducted an informal survey to examine the number of women appearing before her court. Surprisingly, she discovered that the gender disparity in court appearances had seen little improvement in recent years.
“I must say I had thought the figures would be better,” she said.
“There always seems to be a substantial representation of women in the courtroom for hearings.
“I had perhaps assumed that female representation on the bench and a female chief justice would have had a greater impact. But at least they appear to be improving.”
I had perhaps assumed that female representation on the bench and a female chief justice would have had a greater impact. But at least they appear to be improving.
Susan Kiefel, Chief Justice, High Court of Australia
High Court Justice Stephen Gageler paid tribute to his colleague, stating that her “firm and gracious presence” would be missed.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus will select a replacement for Chief Justice Kiefel on the High Court. Earlier this year, the appointment of Justice Jane Jagot resulted in an historic majority-female bench.