From an ACT student, in a letter to the Canberra Times:
Diversity and justice
I am a year 6 student at Forrest Primary School. I am writing to express concern about the lack of diversity among judges in Australian courts. Our judges do not reflect the diversity of the broader community. It is clear that the majority of our judges come from a particular demographic.
The statistics behind the problem reveal how significant this issue is, and help to define what actions are required to solve it.
Firstly, there are very few judges from minority backgrounds in all courts across Australia. Out of the 927 judges around the country, only two are of an Indigenous background, two are openly gay, none have a disability and 17 are Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu.
The majority grew up speaking English. Seventy-two per cent of judges in the Federal Court, 73 per cent in the Supreme Court of Victoria and 76 per cent in the Supreme Court of New South Wales are male.
While this doesn’t itself prove bias, it does show that our judges are assessing people of diverse backgrounds when the majority of them fall into one category. That means defendants from diverse groups in society may be disadvantaged because judges might not empathise with them in the way they would with someone more like them.
Urgent action is needed to combat these problems. Measures should be implemented to ensure the demographic of judges better reflects the Australian community. Options might include recruiting judges from diverse backgrounds and pairing up judges to ensure a range of views to generate fairer outcomes in court.
– Alexander Logan, Forrest
Civil Liberties Australia President, Dr Kristine Klugman, passed Alexander’s letter on to the eminent, retired Australian High Court judge, Michael Kirby (Note 1). He replied:
Michael Kirby’s reply:
I agree that there is a need to increase diversity among judges in Australia.
In my law school classes back in the 1950s only about 4% were women and non-white (Caucasian) students were roughly the same percentage.
Things have become better. For example, I believe that more than 2 judges in Australia are openly gay. It takes some time to procure change in law schools so as to provide personnel who are trained and experienced to be serving judges. Noting the statistics of the kind you have mentioned, a few years back I encouraged the establishment of an organisation to improve diversity in the law. The Asian Australian Lawyers Association was created and now has a large and growing membership. It reveals that the issue does not only concern the judiciary but also magistrates, senior counsel, law firm partners and summer clerkships.
Congratulations on the excellent way in which you have expressed your views. I suggest that they should be sent on to Federal, State and Territory Attorneys-General for their consideration when making judicial appointments, at every level.
Good luck in your studies.
From Dr Kristine Klugman, President, Civil Liberties Australia, to the school principal:
Could you please pass this letter from Michael Kirby on to Alexander, a year 6 student?
I sent Alexander’s letter to the editor of the Canberra Times on to Michael, who wrote him a reply – see attached.
Dr Kristine Klugman OAM
Civil Liberties Australia
Note 1: Before his retirement from the High Court of Australia in 2009, The Honorable Michael Kirby AC CMG was Australia’s longest serving judge. He was first appointed in 1975 and served as initial Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission as well as on other important courts. But he has not only been a judge. He has been engaged with Australian society about improvements in the legal system; changes in attitudes to minorities (aboriginals, non-white citizens and gays); and new and challenging issues (animal welfare, HIV/AIDS, climate change and global human rights).
He has served on many international committees and was President of the International Commission of Jurists Geneva (1995-8) and Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Human Rights in Cambodia (1993-6). He currently serves on the UNAIDS Global Commission on Sustainable Health (2013-) and the World Bank’s Arbitration Panel for International Investment Disputes (2010-) (Aboriginals, non-white citizens and gays); and new and challenging issues (animal welfare, HIV/AIDS, climate change and global human rights). – Keynote Entertainment/Speakers: https://tinyurl.com/y5qro6xx