First female High Court Chief Justice to be sworn in

27 January 2017

There will be three women on the High Court bench, Justice Kiefel, Justice Virginia Bell and Justice Michelle Gordon.

The Honourable Justice Susan Kiefel will become the first woman to be Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia on Monday when she is sworn in during a ceremony dating back more than 100 years.

Dr Heather Roberts from the ANU College of Law has studied swearing-in ceremonies for key Australian courts, including the High Court, and said Justice Kiefel's appointment marked a historic moment for Australia's legal profession.

Justice Kiefel will become Australia's 13th Chief Justice replacing the Honourable Robert French AC who will become Distinguished Visitor at the ANU College of Law.

The ceremony comes almost 30 years to the day since Mary Gaudron was sworn in as Australia's first female High Court Judge.

"When Justice Gaudron was sworn in she was the only female voice and the only female officially recorded as being present," Dr Roberts said.

"On Monday there will be three women on the High Court bench, Justice Kiefel, Justice Virginia Bell and Justice Michelle Gordon."

The day will also mark another first when Justice Bell administers the oath to Justice Kiefel.

Dr Roberts said the swearing in ceremony dates back to 1903, when Sir Samuel Griffith took the oath as the nation's first Chief Justice. The speeches often gives new insight into the background and vision of the new Chief Justice.

"The ceremony provides a rare glimpses of judges as people - with families and hobbies, and to hear how their professional careers developed," Dr Roberts said.

The ceremony is a significant event for the judges, the legal profession and the public. It brings together the leaders of the legal community - including judges past and present, and key representatives of the national and state bars.

Dr Roberts said in previous ceremonies for female judges, speeches from barristers and solicitors often placed great emphasis on the judge as a wife or mother, or their clothing choices.

"More recent ceremonies have recognised the discrimination that women lawyers faced in breaking the glass ceilings of the profession, and the importance of women judges as role models for both male and female lawyers," she said.

Dr Roberts said Justice Kiefel's appointment means she no longer needs to speak to female students in hypotheticals about being Chief Justice.

"Women make up the majority of students in law schools, but they have been leaving the profession in higher numbers than men," she said.

"Until now, becoming Chief Justice may have seemed out of reach."

Justice Kiefel, who joined the High Court in 2007, has more than 20 years of judicial experience.

In another break with tradition, a separate swearing in ceremony will be held on Monday when Brisbane-based Federal Court Justice James Edelman, 42, takes Justice Kiefel's seat on the High Court bench.