On a roll: from barrel girl to High Court judge

Sydney Morning Herald
16 December, 2008
By Yuko Narushima

JUSTICE Virginia Margaret Bell has worn many hats in her life as an activist, television barrel girl and former ABC journalist. Soon she will don a judge's wig in the country's highest court as a replacement for the equally colourful and outspoken Justice Michael Kirby.

Yesterday the 57-year-old became only the fourth woman to be appointed as a justice of the High Court of Australia.

She will join two other women on the bench of seven on February 3, after Justice Kirby retires just shy of his 70th birthday.

The appointment was heralded yesterday as a red letter day for the legal profession, and was warmly received by black letter lawyers.

Announcing the appointment, the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, said Justice Bell would bring a social conscience to the court. She was chosen from a pool of 40 for her expertise in criminal law, and not for any gender imbalance in the courts, he said. "Justice Bell will have a depth of experience from literally the grassroots of legal practice upwards," he said. "Justice Virginia Bell is clearly an outstanding lawyer and will serve law and the Australian community with distinction."

The unmarried daughter of a navy man, Justice Bell was brought up with the notion of public service. Hers was to work as a lawyer.

She cut her teeth at the Redfern Legal Centre, developing skills at the coalface of the criminal justice system that would later distinguish her career.

She served as assistant counsel to the Wood royal commission into NSW Police corruption, was Public Defender for three years and worked part-time as a commissioner on the NSW Law Reform Commission.

She is known for her conventional adherence to the letter of the law but has a very strong sense of justice and a past in political activism.

In a 2001 litigation case involving a Channel Seven broadcast about flamboyant stockbroker Rene Rivkin, she found it was not defamatory to call someone gay, and should not go to a jury.

According to the president of the Law Society of NSW, Hugh Macken, it was Justice Bell's empathy for the underprivileged and understanding of how legislation affected ordinary people that defined her professional life.

"Justice Bell will bring enormous expertise to the High Court, particularly in the area of criminal law, an area she practised extensively both as a solicitor and barrister," he said.

But as well as that, she was a sociable woman, with a finely-tuned sense of humour, he said.

"She has a tremendous work ethic and perhaps it's a fact of life that judicial officers don't get to display their highly developed sense of humours on the bench as they ought," he said. "She's been a great advocate for women lawyers and has a highly developed sense of fun. She's always been legend for that."

A hint of that playfulness is reflected in her former work as president of the Australian Barrel Girls Association. Under the stage name Ginger de Winter, the lover of amateur theatre spun the barrel on television game shows dressed in a taffeta frock.

As a young woman, she was a leading figure in the prison reform movement in NSW and was part of a group, Women Behind Bars.

"It is a great day for Australia that such a talented woman and judge has been appointed to the High Court," said radio personality Julie McCrossin, who was part of that same group.

As an ABC journalist, Justice Bell hosted the television show Late Night Live.

The president of the NSW Bar Association, Anna Katzmann, said Justice Bell was a leading criminal barrister and an eminent jurist who had served on the NSW Supreme Court with distinction since 1999. "I have no doubt that she will serve the High Court, and the wider community with equal distinction."

The shadow attorney-general, George Brandis, thanked Justice Kirby for his 13 years of service and also congratulated Justice Bell on her appointment.

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