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January 30, 2017 Another glass ceiling shatters in the legal arena

For the first time in 114 years, Australia has a female High Court chief justice.

This morning, Justice Susan Kiefel took the oath of allegiance and her place among the highest legal eagles in the land. If you don’t know her story, here’s the gist: she left school at 15, worked as a legal secretary and studied part-time to get her law degree. And now she’s the longest-serving justice on the High Court bench, having been there since 2007.

It’s a very important step for Australia – women make up the majority of law students but are under-represented at the top levels, partially because for most our nation’s history we haven’t thought much of female lawyers. Nevertheless, Kiefel’s been smashing records like this her whole career.

In 1987 she was the first woman to become a Queensland QC, and in 1993 became the first woman to serve on the Queensland supreme court. Does that mean today is just another trophy to add to the cabinet?

Of course not! Last November, when her promotion was announced, Kiefel told the Sydney Morning Herald she was “deeply honoured by the appointment and very conscious of the responsibilities of the office of chief justice”.

That sounds pretty formal, but she got specific about the role of women in law today, saying:

“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.”

It’s been a long journey for women since the High Court was established in 1903 – a year after Australia decided they could vote in elections. For starters, we didn’t get a female justice (let alone a chief one) on the high court until 1987.

But now three of the seven are women, including Virginia Bell and Michelle Gordon, which is about as close to balanced as you can get…

Shane Cubis
is a contributor to A•STAR