Australia

Susan Kiefel: From school dropout to Australia's chief justice

Susan Kiefel has been appointed chief justice of Australia's High Court Image copyright High Court of Australia
Image caption Susan Kiefel has been appointed chief justice of Australia's High Court

The woman who has just been named the first female chief justice of Australia's High Court dropped out of school aged 15 in a bid for financial independence.

Though later regretting the move, it was not long before Susan Kiefel found work as a receptionist in a Brisbane law firm.

She finished her high school certificate part-time, then took a job as a legal clerk while completing a law degree at night.

Arriving at the bar in 1975, the Queenslander embarked on an impressive career which culminated on Tuesday with her being named Australia's 13th chief justice.

Wide praise

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in announcing the appointment, described Justice Kiefel's story as "an inspiration".

The Law Council of Australia called it a "landmark moment" for the nation and its legal system.

"Prior to her her appointment, Justice Kiefel was already a trailblazer for women in the legal profession," said Law Council president Stuart Clark.

"She was the first female QC appointed in Queensland in 1987. She was appointed to the Queensland Supreme Court in 1993 and the Federal Court of Australia in 1994."

She also served as Queensland Bar Association president and as a part-time Australian Law Reform commissioner, he said.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Justice Kiefel meets the Queen during a visit to Buckingham Palace in 2009

In a short statement on Tuesday, Justice Kiefel said the High Court was as relevant now as it was more than a century ago.

"The issues that come before the High Court affect many aspects of the life of the nation," she said.

"It will be a privilege to walk in the footsteps of the eminent jurists who have been appointed chief justices since the court was established in 1903."

Justice Kiefel replaces outgoing chief justice, Robert French, who will retire in January.

Her vacant spot on the High Court bench will be filled by Brisbane-based judge James Edelman.

"He was born on the 9 January 1974 so he is a different generation to most of the other judges of the high court, but he was a professor of law at Oxford at the age of 34," Mr Turnbull said.

The appointments were welcomed by the opposition Labor Party as "both highly deserved".

Storied career

At the High Court, Justice Kiefel has been involved in high-profile judgements including dismissing the Australian government's Malaysia refugee solution, the overturning of a same-sex marriage law and the collapse of a company owned by billionaire former MP Clive Palmer.

In a speech to graduates at Griffith University in 2009, Justice Kiefel reflected on her "fortunate" career as both barrister and judge.

"With the benefit of considerable hindsight it is quite easy to say how one may have a rewarding working life," she said.

"It does not seem so simple when you are not there. You find that occupation or endeavour that suits your talents and your personality.

"It is what the educator Sir Ken Robinson calls being in your element ... people in their element are doing the thing they love and in doing it they feel like their most authentic self."