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Girl who left school at 14 smashes glass ceiling, becomes Chief Justice

Another glass ceiling has been smashed with named the 13th Chief Justice of the Australian High Court.

She has spent her formidable legal career rewriting the script of how to not just succeed but to climb to the very pinnacle in the most establishment of careers.

On Monday, more than 113 years since the first chief justice of the High Court was sworn in and 30 years after the first woman sat on its bench, Justice Kiefel was sworn in as the court’s first female chief justice. “When I came to the bar in 1975, there were very few women members of the profession,” Justice Kiefel said shortly after taking the oaths of office and allegiance”.

This is not the occasion to consider why this was so. The point presently to be made is that this has changed and so has the composition of this court. In more recent times, the appointment of more women to this court recognises that there are now women who have the necessary legal ability and experience as well as the personal qualities to be a justice of this court. There seems no reason to think that that situation will not be maintained in the future. It may well improve.”

After leaving school shortly before she turned 15, Justice Kiefel completed her high school studies at night while working as a legal secretary.

She was admitted to the bar at the age of 21 but her “demanding intelligence” and “unerring instinct for the critical issue in a case“, as Attorney-General George Brandis put it, were not always enough to overcome potential clients’ anxiety about engaging the services of a woman.

When Senator Brandis worked as Justice Kiefel’s junior on a case about the Goondiwindi saleyards he recalled that “our rather blokey clients, representatives of three of the great pastoral houses, Dalgetys, Elders and Primac, were initially a little hesitant about retaining a woman silk, but yielded to my assurance that you were one of the best in the business“.

Needless to say, by the end of the case, you had them eating out of your hand,” Senator Brandis said.

Justice Kiefel promised that under her leadership the High Court would assist all other courts by “providing decisions which are clear and which offer practical guidance“.

She also pledged to continue the court’s role in promoting “public understanding and an appreciation of the Australian constitution, its history and contemporary relevance“.

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