Malcolm Turnbull

Susan Kiefel becomes first female High Court chief justice

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The High Court of Australia has a new chief justice with Susan Kiefel becoming only the 13th person and the first woman appointed to the role.

Australia's first female High Court Chief Justice, Susan Kiefel, has officially been sworn in during a ceremony in Canberra putting an end to more than a century of men leading the nation's highest court. 

It means there are now three women on the bench of the highest court in the nation with Justice Kiefel joining Justice Virginia Bell and Justice Michelle Gordon. 

Addressing the High Court, Chief Justice Kiefel said she was "heartened" by the kind words and good will surrounding her appointment but mindful about the significance of the role ahead of her. 

"When I came to the bar in 1975, there were very few women members of the profession. This is not the occasion to consider why this was so. The point presently to be made is that this has changed and so has the composition of this court," she said.

"The chief justice who have preceded me have been persons of the highest integrity and ability. I have been given a great responsibility, with the cooperation of my colleagues, I trust that I shall discharge it well and justify the confidence that has been proposed in me." 

Addressing the full bench of the court after being sworn in, Attorney-General George Brandis remarked on Justice Kiefel's path to law as "a great Australian story... to inspire women and men alike".

"It is a privilege, and for me, a great personal pleasure, to congratulate the Honourable Susan Kiefel on her accession to the office," he said. 

The Queenslander left school at 15 to begin work as a legal secretary, and studied for her completion of her high school qualifications in her spare time.  

Studying law part-time through the Barristers Admission Board Justice Kiefel was admitted to the bar in 1975, and became the first Queensland woman to take silk (become a Queen's Counsel) in 1987. 

Chief Justice Kiefel replaces Robert French who announced last year that he planned to resign from the role in early January, just 47 days before he turned 70, the mandatory age for retirement under the Constitution. 

When announcing her appointment late last year Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said her story was an inspirational one. 

"Her appointment crowns a great career with even greater judicial service yet to come in this most important role," Prime Minister Turnbull said. 

President of the Law Council of Australia Fiona McLeod praised Chief Justice Kiefel as a judge of "exceptional talent".  

 "To have her now be appointed Chief Justice and the first woman to hold that office is a very inspiring and moving movement," Ms McLeod said.  

It's a day of firsts with James Edelman, 43, to be sworn in as the nation's youngest appointment to the High Court.

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