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Speech at special sitting of the High Court of Australia to welcome the Hon Justice Virginia Bell, Canberra.



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ATTORNEY-GENERAL THE HON ROBERT McCLELLAND MP

A special sitting of the

High Court of Australia

to welcome

the Hon Justice Virginia Bell

High Court of Australia, Canberra

Tuesday, 3 February 2009 10:15am

1. May it please the Court.

2. First, may I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people,

the traditional owners of the land on which we

meet , and pay my respects to their elders, both

past and present.

3. And second. It is my very great pleasure to be

the person, on this occasion, to open the formal

part of the proceedings.

Welcoming ceremony for the Hon Justice Virginia Bell, High Court of Australia 3 February 2009

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4. On behalf of the Government and people of

Australia, I offer Your Honour my

congratulations and best wishes on your

appointment to the High Court of Australia.

5. I understand that many of those close to you

including your parents, John and Mary, your

brother Chris and close family and friends are

her e today to share this special moment with you .

I know they have all been a tremendous support

to you.

6. Although perhaps a little less ordinary than some

legal careers, particularly at the outset, your

career has been a distinguished one indeed . And

one th at has paved the way for this appointment.

7. To quote the President of the NSW Bar

Association at the time of Your Honour’ s

swearing in to the NSW Supreme Court: “You

bring to the Bench a long experience in law, life

and ordinary people.”

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8. And you have a bro ad legal career spanning

three decades - as a community lawyer,

barrister, public defender, senior counsel, law

reform commissioner and judge . It is the totality

of this experience and contribution that has led to

Your Honour’s appointment to Australia’s

highest court.

9. Your ear ly years were spent as a naval ‘ brat ’ on

Garden Island in Sydney , where your father was

a naval officer and then general manager. It has

been suggested that this military upbringing

helped shape your strong sense of public duty

whic h is a trait of our armed services. And a

trait for which you are justly renowned.

10. I understand that initially you had considered a

career as an actor. Indeed I am told that your

graduation from law school was almost

overshadowed by your contemporaneous

graduation from Dame Doris Fitton’s School of

Dramatic Art at the Independent Theatre in

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Sydney. However, t he stage’s loss w as the law’s

gain.

11. Even so, you have maintained a strong

connection to the arts and theatre. You have

clearly demonstrated that th ere is always a life to

live beyond the confines of the law.

12. In 1978 Your Hon our began your legal career ,

initially working as a volunteer, at the newly

established Re dfern Legal Centre . After some

time your dedication was finally honoured with a

wage.

13. During Your Honour ’s seven years at the legal

cen tre you were involved in landmark civil

liberties cases and were a driving force behind

establishing t he Prisoners’ Legal Service.

14. Your Honour ’s appointment is, in part, due

recognition of the vitally importa nt role of the

community legal sector.

15. Your Honour be gan working as a barrister in

1984 , joining Frederick Jordan Chambers .

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16. In 1986 Your Honour was appointed a public

defender .

17. Throughout this time, Your Honour consolidated

your reputation as a strong advocate with a sharp

legal mind and an engaging sense of humour.

18. However, despite your work for the poor and

disadvantaged, you avoided the pitfalls of

sentimentality and political correctness. On one

occasion, meeting a client, a reputed hitman

charged with murder, before a court hearing, you

were heard to remark, “Look at you Chris,

dressed to kill.”

19. In court, you were renowned for your abilit y to

run a flawless trial and conduct incisive

cross -examinations. Your skills of persuasion,

both with judges and juries, reflected your deep

interest in, and respect for , people from all walks

of life.

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20. Your ability to tie a witness in knots is widely

respected, and indeed has been demonstrated

well beyond the courtroom.

21. When you chanced your arm as a talk sh ow

host on Late Night Live on ABC Radio, it has

been suggested that erudite discussions of art,

literature and history with prominent experts

became less a matter for refined interchange, and

more subjects for acute forensic dissection. This

involved full frontal attack of your guests as

hostile witnesses, with your Honour out to break

whatever story they purported to tell on matters

such as French design or contemporary

architecture. I a m very pleased to have avoided

an interview.

22. In 1995 Your Honour was appointed counsel

assisting in the Royal Commission into the NSW

Police Service .

23. In November 1997 you were appointed Senior

Coun se l.

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24. Between 1997 and 1999 Your Honour also served

as a part -time commissioner with the NSW Law

Reform Commission.

25. Your Honour ’s appointment as a Judge to the

Supreme Court of NSW came in 1999 . And while

you are known outside the court for your quick

wit and commitment to social justice , in court

you had a developed awareness of the

appropriate role of a trial judge and the

bound aries of the law . This you made clear at

the time of your swearing -in to the NSW

Supreme Court:

“I bear in mind that the Chief Justice of

Australia when Chief Justice of this state said

words to the effect that if a judge is burdened by

a sense of humour, it would be rather a good

thing if he or she did not demonstrate that fact

from the bench.”

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26. This approach earn ed you the nickname “Mrs

Judge” from your friends. But I might say ,

pleasingly , you have never been able to mask

your humanity.

27. Your appointme nt as a Judge of the Court of

Appeal in 2008 was a further acknowledgment of

your sound judgment, intellect and quick ability

to become conversant with new areas of law.

28. Much play has been made since the

announcement of your appointment to this court

of yo ur Honour’s early brushes with popular

culture and daytime television. Less well known

is your Honour’s long -standing interest in and

knowledge of 13 th and 14 th century Italian

devotional art. While specialist expertise in that

area is not yet a qualific ation for appointment to

this Court, I anticipate a new range of continuing

legal education courses for aspiring High Court

advocates.

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29. Your Honour is an outstandin g member of the

judiciary . As you now move in to your new role I

know that you will continue to serve the law and

the Australian community with great distinction.

30. Once again, o n behalf of the Government and

people of Australia, I extend to Your Honour

congratulations, best wishes and a very warm

welcome as a Justice of Australia’s Highest

Court.

31. May it please the Court.

ENDS