Justice Virginia Bell has been widely acclaimed as a worthy replacement on the High Court for Justice Michael Kirby. Jerome Appleby reports.
With Australian High Court Justice Michael Kirby set to retire in February — shortly before his 70th birthday, the age at which High Court appointments expire — the Rudd Government has nominated Virginia Bell as his replacement.
It will be the second appointment to the High Court by the Rudd Labor Government — Western Australian Justice Robert French replaced Chief Justice Murray Gleeson in September.
Bell’s appointment will then see three women on the bench, and make a total of four women in its history.
A close examination of Bell is imperative, given that courts play an important role in shaping society. That importance would be greatly increased if the Commonwealth Parliament were to enact a bill or charter of rights.
As such, appointments made to our courts, particularly the highest one, should be made carefully to ensure that the will of parliament and the Australian people is not overridden by unelected and unaccountable judges with their own political agendas.
Bell started her legal career at Redfern Legal Centre, Sydney, working there from 1978 to 1984. Later she worked as a public defender. In 1999 she was appointed to the NSW Supreme Court before retiring in December 2008. Her expertise lies in criminal law.
So, what do we know about Bell? Rudd Government Attorney-General Robert McClelland said: “I think it’s fair to say that she will bring to the High Court most certainly a social conscience as well as bringing to the High Court considerable legal expertise.” What precisely is a social conscience and why is it a good thing to bring one to the High Court?
According to the Sydney Star Observer — a prominent homosexual news source – Virginia Bell is reportedly “one of the original 1978 (Gay and Lesbian) Mardi Gras participants,” and that as “a young activist and lawyer Bell… provided legal defence to the 53 people arrested during the first Mardi Gras protest”. (Harley Dennett, “New justice a ’78er”, Sydney Star Observer, December 17, 2008).
In December last year, The Australian reported that Bell “still lives in the inner-city with her partner, a female barrister”. (The Australian, December 20, 2008).
Apparently, “before joining the bench [Bell] also joined protests for equal rights, anti-discrimination and anti-vilification laws”, and worked “on a number of other feminist campaigns including Women Behind Bars.” (Sydney Star Observer, December 17, 2008).
In May 1994, Virginia Bell spoke at a rally that marked the seventh International Day of Action for Women’s Health. The theme for the day was women’s right to choose abortion. According to the Green Left Weekly, “Pro-choice lawyer Virginia Bell briefly described the legal implications of the Newman ruling, stressing the need for repeal rather than reform of anti-abortion laws.” (“Rallies call for abortion law repeal”, Green Left Weekly, June 1, 1994).
Later, in August of that year, Virginia Bell spoke at a public meeting organised by the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign, at which she reportedly “stressed the need to repeal abortion from the Crimes Act rather than argue for law reform because the latter is more likely to lead to the restriction of access than its liberalisation”. (Kath Gelber, “Repeal all anti-abortion laws!”, Green Left Weekly, August 17, 1994).
Justice Bell’s appointment to the High Court has been widely acclaimed.
University of NSW law professor, George Williams, author of A Charter of Rights for Australia, praised Justice Bell, saying that she had “been regarded as one of the best criminal lawyers in the country for a long, long time”.
Australian Law Reform Commission president David Weisbrot anticipated that she would prove to be a “very progressive” jurist in the tradition of outgoing Justice Michael Kirby.
Australian Women Lawyers president Georgia McMaster expressed her belief that Justice Bell would be a “true replacement” for Justice Kirby.
“Justice Kirby has always been a champion of rights, and Virginia Bell is of the same mould,” she said. (The Australian, December 16, 2008).
The federal Liberal shadow attorney-general, Senator the Hon. George Brandis SC, said the Opposition welcomed the announcement of Virginia Bell’s nomination to the High Court.
Very litte concern has been expressed publicly over Bell’s suitability for the High Court.
One wonders if a Labor Opposition would give such a generous welcome to a Liberal-appointed judge.
— Jerome Appleby