Supreme Court of Tasmania

CEREMONIAL SITTING  9 November 2009

Address by the Hon Justice Helen Wood on her appointment to the Supreme Court of Tasmania

Madam Attorney, Mr Jones and Mr Tree thank you for your kind and gracious words.

I am grateful to all of you for your attendance today. I am honoured by the presence of His Excellency the Governor and Mrs Underwood, Mr William Cox, the Hon Justice Slicer of the Supreme Court Samoa and the Hon Robert Nettlefold.

I want to commence by making special mention of the attendance of my family and I will do so at this early stage as Sarah may not last the distance we will see she has had a fairy tale morning involving a visit to a real castle. I am just delighted that she can be here. It is, of course, a special joy for me to have my son Lewis here I wish to also particularly mention my husband Graham and express my thanks for the support he has provided me; this has been a constant in my professional life. As I take on my new role his support includes embracing necessary changes and adjustments to our lives.

I am very proud to have my parents here, Wilma and Neville Lambert, and my sister Pirjo and my three brothers Stephen, Thomas and Ben. It is special for me to have my whole family here. I also welcome my nieces and nephew and my family in law. I am delighted my father in law, Errol Wood, could be here travelling even short distances is increasingly difficult for him and I am appreciative of the trouble he has taken. I want to mention as well Selina Lawless who is a special part of our childrens lives and our family.

I am proud and deeply conscious of the great honour of my appointment as a Judge of this Court. I will endeavour, to the best of my ability, to fulfil my responsibilities.

There are other people I wish to acknowledge and thank. They are people who have lead by example, influenced me or provided encouragement in my professional life. Unfortunately it is impossible today to mention all of them.

It only seems like yesterday that Daryl Coates and I walked from our Crown offices in the SBT building to the Supreme Court, with our trolleys and files, in our new roles as freshly admitted Crown Counsel. We were extremely nervous. While I had every reason to be, Daryl had already acquired a thorough understanding of the rules of evidence and principles of criminal responsibility. We worked for seven years side by side at the Crown and after that Daryl went on to take silk and to be appointed Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions.

In those seven years we were fortunate to receive extensive experience in this Court. We were both fortunate to work with a team of senior lawyers who were extremely knowledgeable about the law in all its obscurities and who were generous with their time. Damian Bugg, Director of Public Prosecutions, exemplified these qualities His skill in trial and appellate advocacy was an inspiration to me and all those who worked with him in his Office and his dedication to the law was a great example.

In conducting criminal trials I learnt much from my adversaries. Some of those experiences were salutary for me. I was very fortunate to appear against experienced practitioners in this State who were highly skilled advocates.

It was a time when criminal trials and court appeals were not a womans domain and judges could confidently refer to those at the bar table as gentlemen. (When any such occasional lapses in my presence occurred it would have been churlish to have minded they were corrected with such courtesy.)

So much has changed since then; the number of women lawyers practicing in this area has increased and I remember well an occasion as a Magistrate about 12 years ago when I looked about the court room and I observed that all the key roles were filled by women. It has now reached the stage at the Crown, with Tim Ellis as Director of Public Prosecutions, that women Crown Counsel outnumber men.

The speakers today have spoken about my move to private practice at Jennings Elliott as the firm was then called. At my ceremonial sitting as Magistrate in 1994 I paid tribute to the experience I had been fortunate to receive while working with senior practitioner Ken Read in the area of civil litigation, and the balance it brought to my perspective by having spent time on both sides of the bar table and the insight this gave me into the experiences of ordinary people involved in litigation.

At that sitting 15 years ago my grandmothers were present in the front row proud of their grand-daughter; both were strong-minded women and it is a sad mark of time that they are not here today. There are aspects of my grandmothers lives that throw into stark relief the opportunities that I have had opportunities that they could not have imagined. I bring to my new role a strong sense of the privilege of opportunity and a consciousness of the women who have paved the way for my generation.

The greater portion of my professional life has been spent as a magistrate. My 15 years in this role has been most rewarding it is both important and a pleasure for me today to acknowledge publicly the support I have had from my fellow magistrates.

Those 15 years have been a time characterised by innovation and change in the day to day work undertaken by magistrates. In all that change there has been one constant and that is the support I have had from my colleagues. Not just their generous sharing of their knowledge and skill but also examples of judging that I admire and respect. A combination of qualities, including compassion, common sense, a robust attitude to getting work done, empathy, scepticism when required but not cynicism, good humour and humility. I hope that I have worked with them long enough that I will bring some of those qualities to my new role.

I especially mention Arnold Shott, who commenced as Chief Magistrate a month after I started and retired just four months ago. I feel privileged to have worked with him. His prodigious hard work and detailed attention to improving the workings of the Court are an inspiration. He was progressive and innovative and his influence has seen the implementation of many sound and principled changes. His dedication to duty and utter professionalism and support for his fellow magistrates continues in the tradition of former Chief Magistrate John Morris and now Chief Magistrate Michael Hill.

It is gratifying to me that I join the Supreme Court and leave the Magistrates Court at a time of mutual respect and dual appreciation of the demands and challenges that each Court faces. I also note that this attitude of respect and appreciation is promoted at a national level with Chief Justice French of the High Court endorsing a less hierarchical mindset and focusing instead on what is important: the respective functions of the Courts in Australia. He spoke on 1 September 2008, at his own swearing-in ceremonial sitting, of the fundamentals of our system of justice which apply equally to this Court and to the Magistrates Court the obligation to decide cases according to law and the obligation to deal with cases impartially and independently that is imbedded in our judicial oaths.

There is something else that I wish to mention which I bring from the Magistrates Court it is an appreciation of the professionalism of the lawyers who practice in that Court; the high standard of service provided by the Legal Aid lawyers and also lawyers from the private sector of the profession.

I believe that a measure of a society is how it treats its most disadvantaged. I also think that a measure that can be applied to every profession is the way in which each profession treats the most disadvantaged people who turn to it for help. In applying that measure we should be justly proud of our legal profession.

On any day of the week particularly a Monday or Friday at 4.00pm at the Magistrates Court in Liverpool Street in Hobart or the Courts in Launceston, Devonport or Burnie, there will be a court sitting. The public gallery will be empty except for a small band of supporters often distressed, agitated or bewildered. The case will be low profile, the press box will be empty, but for the individual appearing this will be a vital matter. In these court rooms I have seen lawyers working under trying circumstances, time pressured and with limited resources, but with conscientious dedication to their work. I have often thought the profession should cherish the important contribution of these lawyers.

I am looking forward in my new role to the continued assistance and high standard of professionalism from the legal profession and the Bar and the legal profession generally.

I wish to acknowledge the other Court I have worked for and my eight colleagues on the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal. I have valued their commitment to that jurisdiction in their decision-making and our robust discussions about principle and process.

I recall, when the ADA first commenced in 1999, speaking to retired judge and former Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner, the Hon Justice Nettlefold. I listened carefully as one always does for his precious words of wisdom. One of the things he said was: You know such legislation is an important tool for social change.

I feel very fortunate to have been part of that social change. Some of the outcomes which have been most satisfying to me are those where I didnt put pen to paper others must take the credit at conciliation the complainants had the chance to speak about why the words or actions hurt, an understanding was acquired and afterwards the parties fashioned their own outcomes and then shook hands across that divide in our society caused by ignorance.

Having traversed my career and those who have influenced me in my professional life I return to my family and I wish to mention again publicly my parents. They have provided me with a precious gift of a very happy childhood after 15 years as a magistrate hearing criminal cases and sitting in the Youth Justice Court I know very well not to take that for granted.

In my recent reflections about their influence and inspiration I recalled a point in my career that I had completely forgotten. It was one of those crossroad moments. After I was admitted, I was only offered that job of Crown Counsel for six months and with no prospect of employment after that. But then I received a phone call from Justice and I was offered a position in legislation and policy it was a permanent position. And I did enjoy drafting legislation it was satisfying and important work. My boyfriend at the time, who will remain nameless, all that I will say is that he is now my husband, gave me some advice. He thought his girlfriend who was shy and didnt like public speaking should take the job with permanency. I agonised about the decision I found trial work fascinating but nerve racking. I spoke to my father and asked him for advice. He wouldnt give advice. Instead he asked some questions about what I really wanted to do. And I found myself taking the path that involved much hard work and a steep learning curve but one which has proved to be richly rewarding.

I have no illusions that the path before me will involve more hard work and another steep learning curve. I approach that with optimism but also I face my role with some trepidation. I know I am right to feel this way. The role will be onerous and challenging. In acknowledging those who have influenced and inspired me or led by example I have identified resources I can draw on. As I do my utmost to properly fulfil my responsibilities, there is one other person that should be mentioned my predecessor. In the challenges ahead his path will be an inspiration to me.

As I face all that is ahead I am grateful for the warm wishes and kind messages of support that I have received from so many of you. I am also grateful for the warm welcome I have received from the Chief Justice, each of the Judges and the Associate Judge.

Before I conclude I want to simply thank you all for making the time to share this occasion today.

I will treasure today, the words that have been said and your presence. I thank each and every one of you.

The Court is adjourned sine die.