Volume 9, Issue 10
I was lucky enough to sit down recently with this semester’s Judge in Residence, the Honourable Elizabeth Curtain. As a young female in the legal profession, I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to follow a path that women like her have carved out for us.
During her time at the Victorian Bar, Elizabeth Curtain was often asked which barrister she was secretary to.
At that time, it was a rarity for women to go to the Bar. However, once her colleagues learnt that she was in fact a young barrister trying to make a start, they did everything in their power to assist her to succeed.
If it was a huge step for a female law graduate to go to the Bar when Justice Curtain did, then holding the varied judicial positions that her Honour did can only be considered a leap of epic proportions.
But when I asked if becoming a judge was ever a goal for her Honour, she responded that it was never even considered a possibility . In fact, she said that if someone had told her that she would be a judge one day, she would have laughed - at the time the concept of a female judge was considered too abstract. During her time at Melbourne Law School, her Honour remembers there only being one female judicial role model: South Australian judge Dame Roma Mitchell.
However, our discussion didn’t focus heavily on what has unquestionably been an impressive and enviable career. Instead, we had a fairly candid discussion of mutual experiences studying law. When I admitted to her that I felt that law sometimes consumed me entirely, she completely understood. She told me that she balanced her working life with her interest in theatre and amateur acting, and also with horse racing. She believes that the Spring Carnival is a fun time in Melbourne, for the horse racing, but also for the incredible fashion and hospitality.
Perhaps because of her efforts to maintain interests outside the law, her Honour’s love of horse racing and her career converged when she became Deputy Chairman of the Racing Appeals Tribunal.
I noted that I had an interest in combining a career in law with education, the career path both of my parents have chosen. Her Honour believes there is a key challenge in this area, which she believes creates severe misunderstandings of the judicial system.
In Australia, unlike in the United States or other countries around the world, there is no culture of civics teaching in Australian schools.
Her Honour’s concern was reinforced when I ashamedly let on that I had no idea about the three separate branches of government in Australia until I started law school at 21, and that my introduction to the Australian Constitution was while watching 'The Castle'.
Naturally, many Australians have a view on the way the justice system, especially the criminal justice system, should be administered. Reporting on crime and sentencing forms the bulk of our news, and concerns us all.
However, she argues that through no fault of their own, the majority of people don’t understand what judges do or what constraints they face.
Her Honour believes that this lack of understanding leads people to criticize judges for being out of touch with society, or for making decisions from ivory towers.
But her Honour states that this view of judges couldn’t be further from the truth. She believes that her career, first and foremost as a criminal lawyer, and then later as a judge, has allowed her to see the full spectrum of human nature and emotions.
In her own words, she says that she has seen bad things happen to good people, good people do bad things in moments of extreme pressure, people demonstrating extreme acts of resilience and courage, and everything else in between.
While the public hear a snippet of reporting about the length of a sentence or a small extract of what might be a lengthy and considered judgment, a judge has witnessed every aspect of a trial play out, sometimes for days or months on end. They have watched how the trial has affected those who are involved in it, and have read every document, and every witness statement, first hand.
The courts, like the theatre, are forums for social commentary. Her Honour has given, and continues to give, an outstanding performance.
Claire Poyser is a third-year JD student
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