The Australian Association
of Women Judges
History and Formation of AAWJ
The AAWJ was formed in 1992 at the instigation of Justice Jane Mathews and others from New South Wales. In 1989 Justice Mathews attended as Australia’s sole representative at the 10th anniversary of the United States National Association of Women Judges. Funding had been obtained to bring women judges from all over the world and it was the first ever international gathering of women judges. It was an extraordinary occasion and Jane Mathews experienced the life-changing effect of this, in the way that many women judges have done ever since, when attending international conferences of the IAWJ. Just as this conference provided the inspiration for the formation of the IAWJ, it also provided the impetus to establish the Australian Association of Women Judges.
Australia is a vast but sparsely populated country with relatively few women Judges in the early 1990s. Getting enough together to form an association was not easy, but on 17 March, 1992 Jane Mathews convened a meeting in her chambers, attended by the grand total of 6 women Judges and the AAWJ was formed.
From Formation to the Sydney Conference in 2006
The Association continued from its formation, initially under the presidency of Justice Mathews, then Justice Margaret Nyland (Supreme Court of South Australia). After 2004, Justice Mathews served a second term as President when she was also President of the IAWJ.
Membership of the AAWJ is open to a serving or retired female judge or magistrate, or a female whose principal employment is as a judicial or quasi-judicial officer of an Australian court or tribunal. The Association has about 175 financial members in 2015 including women judicial officers from most courts and tribunals in all states and territories of Australia.
The AAWJ remained a very small organisation throughout the 1990s and beyond 2000. In 2003 Justice Mary Gaudron retired from the High Court of Australia. She was the first woman appointed to our highest Court and was a strong supporter of the AAWJ. The AAWJ held a dinner to mark her retirement in Sydney in February 2003, which was attended by women Judges from around Australia, and the AAWJ took advantage of this to hold the first general meeting of the Association.
In 2005 the AAWJ became an incorporated association. Its objectives are:
- to advance women’s rights to equal justice;
- to increase the participation of women at all levels of the judiciary and the legal system; and
- to promote education which contributes to the understanding and resolution of legal issues facing women.
When Justice Mathews became President of the IAWJ in 2004 she put plans in place to hold the Biennial Conference in 2006 in Sydney. That was a massive effort for the AAWJ at the time, which was still relatively small and even today suffers from the tyranny of distance when trying to bring all members together Australia-wide.
The IAWJ conference in Sydney in 2006 was however a huge success, with 352 women judges from around the world attending, representing 43 countries. There were 95 Australian delegates, thus amounting to the largest gathering of Australian women Judges ever. That conference did much to raise awareness of both the AAWJ and the IAWJ and, just as Justice Mathews had experienced in 1989, proved a life-changing experience for many of us, increasing membership of the AAWJ and creating ongoing interest in the IAWJ, including regular Australian attendances at IAWJ Biennial and Regional Conferences.
The AAWJ after 2006
Justice Mathews stepped down as President of the AAWJ after the Sydney Conference. Her role in establishing the Association was enormous and she continues to be actively involved in the Association. Her contribution is ongoing and valuable.
Judge Sarah Bradley of the Queensland District Court was elected President in May 2006 and was responsible for overseeing an increase in membership of the AAWJ and raising our profile both nationally and internationally.
The AAWJ was well-represented at the Biennial IAWJ Conference in Panama in 2008 and increasingly well represented at every Biennial conference thereafter – Seoul in 2010, London in 2012 and Arusha, Tanzania in 2014. Each of these Biennial Conferences has created a new contingent of Australian women Judges attending an IAWJ Biennial Conference for the first time and coming away inspired.
Under Judge Bradley’s leadership the AAWJ held its first National Conference in 2011 in Brisbane with a keynote speaker on the topic of human trafficking and the sex trade.
In December 2013 the AAWJ was pleased to host the opening event of the Australian and New Zealand Law and Society Conference at the University of Queensland, which was the launch of a book entitled “Australian Feminist Judgments: Righting and Rewriting Law”. This book brings together feminist academics and lawyers to present a collection of alternative judgments in a series of Australian legal cases. It was a sold-out event, with over 250 people attending and addressed by Justice Margaret McMurdo, Chief Justice Diana Bryant and Judge Sarah Bradley. This function elevated the profile of the AAWJ in the broader legal academic field.
The AAWJ’s interest in areas involving the intersection of human rights, women’s rights and the law included hosting a seminar in 2014 on commercial surrogacy, an issue of considerable relevance in our region. The keynote speaker was Chief Justice Diana Bryant and it attracted media interest with some television coverage.
In June 2014 Judge Bradley stepped down as President and Judge Robyn Tupman from the NSW District Court was elected President. Justice Margaret Beazley, the President of the NSW Court of Appeal, is Secretary and Judge Rosemary Davies from the District Court of South Australia was Vice President. Sadly Rosemary Davies passed away in 2015. Judge Frances Millane from the County Court of Victoria was elected Vice President in August 2016. The governing Committee has representatives from each State of Australia, the Federal Courts and the 2 Commonwealth Territories. The Committee meets by teleconference at least twice a year and by email as needed. With 5 different time zones and huge distances, it is difficult to meet in person.
We have attempted to strengthen our bonds with the NZAWJ and Judges Tupman and Millane have attended their Annual Conference and AGM in Auckland, renewing old friendships and meeting new members.
The AAWJ and the IAWJ
The AAWJ is part of the Asia Pacific Region of the IAWJ and enjoys a close relationship with other women Judges in our Region. We were delighted to send a large delegation to the Regional Conference in Auckland in 2013, hosted by the New Zealand Association. We have much in common with New Zealand and were delighted to be part of an excellent conference. Similarly delegates from Australia were the largest international delegation at the recent Regional Conference in Tagaytay, The Philippines, in May 2015 hosted by the PWJA. We were treated to extraordinary Phillippina hospitality at that conference and forged stronger bonds within our region. The AAWJ itself hosted the 2017 Asia Pacific Regional conference in Sydney which was extremely well attended by AAWJ members and our colleagues from the Region.
The AAWJ sent large delegations also to the Biennial IAWJ conferences in Washington in 2016 and Buenos Aires in 2018.
As a relatively wealthy country in our region, the AAWJ seeks to assist women Judges in the Asia-Pacific region, where possible. Our income is limited to fees, and access to external funding has either decreased or ended in recent times, but we have been able to sponsor women Judges to attend the Biennial and Regional Conferences. This has included women Judges from Papua New Guinea, Timor l’Este and Cambodia. We hope to continue this in the future. We also support our sisters in Papua New Guinea generally and were delighted when they established their own National Association in 2012.
Women Judges in Australian Courts
In 2018 there are women Judges at all levels of the judiciary in Australia. Justice Mary Gaudron was the first woman appointed to the High Court of Australia in 1989 and remained there for many years as the only woman Judge. But this has now changed. Since then Justices Susan Crennan, Susan Kiefel and Virginia Bell were appointed. Justice Crennan retired in February 2015 and in April 2015 Justice Michelle Gordon was appointed to the High Court of Australia. Thus women comprise almost a majority of the 7 Judges of our highest court. In 2017 Justice Susan Kiefel was appointed as the first woman Chief Justice of Australia and the AAWJ was proud and delighted to have her as the Key Note speaker at the IAWJ Asia Pacific Regional Conference in Sydney in 2017.
Justice Diana Bryant recently retired as the Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, Justice Helen Murrell is the Chief Justice of the Australian Capital Territory, the Chief Justice of the State of Victoria, Justice Marilyn Warren, recently retired and was replaced as Chief Justice by Justice Anne Ferguson. The Chief Justice of the State of Queensland is Justice Catherine Holmes. Justice Margaret Beazley and Justice Margaret McMurdo were the Presidents of the Courts of Appeal of NSW and Queensland respectively. The Hon Margaret Beazley has recently retired and on 2 May, 2019 will be appointed as the Governor of the State of New South Wales. The Hon Margaret McMurdo has also retired and recently has been appointed to undertake a significant Royal Commission in the State of Victoria.
The Government of the State of Victoria has recently adopted a 50:50 model, to ensure 50% of all new judicial appointments are women. The national average for women Judges is between 28% – 37%, except for the ACT where women now comprise 55% of the Judges in that Territory.
The numbers of women Judges throughout all of the Courts and Tribunals in Australia is increasing but there is still room for improvement and where appropriate the AAWJ advocates for the appointment of women.
The AAWJ and the Future
Membership and interest in the AAWJ is increasing. We will continue our involvement with the IAWJ, especially through attendance at the Biennial and Regional Conferences.