Trailblazing Susan Kiefel, From Sandgate District SHS, Retires as Australia’s First Female Chief Justice

Susan Kiefel didn’t think higher education was for her when, at age 15, she left Sandgate District State High School after Year 10. She changed her mind later on, completed college and pursued law studies, and going on to later become the first woman to serve as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia. She retires in November 2023.

A Unique Journey from Sandgate to the High Court

In her own words, Susan Kiefel said she didn’t particularly enjoy high school and found little encouragement to pursue higher education, especially as a young girl; so she left school after Year 10.

Photo Credit: Alex Correa/LinkedIn

She ventured into the workforce, learning typing and administrative skills at Kangaroo Point Technical College. She became a secretary for a group of barristers at a Brisbane legal practice.

It was during her time as a secretary that she discovered her passion for the legal profession. The camaraderie and dedication of the barristers she worked for inspired her. 

Despite the challenges, Ms Kiefel’s determination led her to finish college. She then studied law part-time, a process that took eight years. Her perseverance paid off as she received support from experienced barristers like Sir Gerard Brennan, who became a Chief Justice of the High Court. Her tenacity led her to a successful career in law.

Overcoming Gender Bias in the Legal Profession

Entering the legal field as a woman in 1975 was no easy feat. Ms Kiefel was one of only three women at the Queensland bar that year, and she faced gender-based bias. Some clients even withdrew briefs upon realising she was a woman, and certain law firms had policies against briefing women. However, her dedication and support from senior barristers helped her establish herself.

She went on to achieve remarkable milestones, becoming the first female Queen’s Counsel in Queensland in 1987 and the second female member of the Queensland Supreme Court in 1991. Ms Kiefel’s journey then took her to the Federal Court in 1994, and in 2007, she was appointed to the High Court, where she later became Chief Justice in 2017.

Photo Credit: National Library of Australia

A Voice Against Sexual Harassment

Chief Justice Susan Kiefel made significant contributions to the legal profession during her tenure. In June 2020, an independent investigation upheld sexual harassment complaints against a retired High Court judge, Dyson Heydon. 

Whilst not discussing the particulars of the case, Ms Kiefel emphasized that the High Court’s approach shed light on the issue of sexual harassment and led to the development of effective mechanisms to address such concerns, extending to bullying in workplaces.

Promoting Joint Judgments and Encouraging Female Barristers

Throughout her career, the chief justice advocated for joint judgments, believing they provide clarity and certainty in the law. As she steps down from her role, Ms Kiefel expressed a desire to see more female barristers appear before the High Court. Whilst recognising that women have made significant strides, she highlighted the need for women in leadership positions across the legal profession.

Ms Kiefel’s story is an inspiration to many, illustrating that with determination and hard work, anyone can succeed, regardless of their background. Her legacy will continue to pave the way for future generations of women in the legal field, encouraging them to aim high and persevere, just as she did.

Published 31-Oct-2023