Australian Women's Register

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Exhibitions

  • Australian Women Lawyers as Active Citizens

Bell, Virginia Margaret

The Honourable Justice, AC

Born
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Occupation
Barrister, Commissioner, Judge, Lawyer, Public defender and Senior Counsel

Summary

The Honourable Justice Virginia Bell AC is the fourth woman since 1901 to have been appointed to the High Court of Australia.

Details

The daughter of a naval officer, John, and his wife, Mary, Virginia Bell was educated at Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School in Darlinghurst where she showed the makings of having a career in acting. She chose instead to pursue law at the University of Sydney; after graduating in 1976, she was admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales on 21 December 1977.

A volunteer who became a paid employee of the newly established Redfern Legal Service, it was here that Bell cut her teeth as a community lawyer on tenancy, criminal law and credit law, among other areas, and also earned a name for herself as a champion of the disadvantaged (her reputation was immortalised in the song 'Police Verbals' by Sydney punk band, Mutant Death).

In 1978 she participated in the first Sydney Mardi Gras. Years later when she was a judge she would rule that to describe someone as gay was not defamatory. During this period she was involved with Women behind Bars and the establishment of the Prisoners' Legal Service.

Admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 20 December 1984, Bell read with Dean Letcher (later QC). Between 1986 and 1989 she practised as a public defender. She returned to the private Bar and on 6 November 1997 she was appointed as senior counsel. She later became counsel assisting the Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Force. On 25 March 1999, Bell was appointed to the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Between 2006 and 2008 she was president of the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration. In 2008, she was elevated to the Court of Appeal where she served until her appointment to the High Court of Australia, replacing the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG on 3 February 2009.

In 2012 Bell was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia '(f)or eminent service to the judiciary and to the law through leadership in criminal law reform and public policy development, to judicial administration, and as an advocate for the economically and socially disadvantaged.' She has been awarded honorary degrees from the University of Wollongong and the University of Sydney.

Sources used to compile this entry: 'The Honourable Justice Virginia Bell AC', in University of Wollongong, Honorary Doctor of Laws Citation, 19 December 2013, http://www.uow.edu.au/alumni/awards/honorary/doctorate/UOW174447.html; Bell, The Hon. Justice V, 'Index to compilation of speeches delivered by The Hon. Justice V. Bell', Supreme Court of New South Wales, 19 December 2008, http://www.supremecourt.justice.nsw.gov.au/Documents/Speeches/Pre-2015%20Speeches/Assorted%20-%20A%20to%20K/bell_speeches.pdf; Mcclelland, Robert & Australian Labor Party, 'Speech at special sitting of the High Court of Australia to welcome the Hon Justice Virginia Bell, Canberra', in Parliament of Australia, 2009, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22media%2Fpressrel%2FWATS6%22; Rice, Simon, 'A Reflection on Justice Virginia Bell', in Peppercorn, February 2009, http://lawstudents.society.anu.edu.au/documents/peppercorn_2009_1.pdf; Spigelman, The Hon. J J, 'Address on The Retirement of the Honourable Justice Virginia Bell', in Index to compilation of speeches delivered by the Hon. J J Spigelman, AC, Chief Justice of NSW in 2008, Supreme Court of New South Wales, 19 December 2008, http://www.supremecourt.justice.nsw.gov.au/Documents/spigelman_speeches_2008.pdf; 'Early volunteers and clients', Our History, Redfern Legal Centre, http://rlc.org.au/about-us/our-history, (viewed 12 June 2016); Berkovic, Nicola, 'Family pride as rebel Virginia Bell makes it to the top', The Australian, 4 February 2009, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/news/family-pride-as-rebel-makes-it-to-top/story-e6frg6o6-1111118749090, (viewed 31 May 2016); Kissane, Karen and Peter Gregory, 'Virginia Bell's journey from barrel girl to the High Court', The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 December 2008, http://www.smh.com.au/national/virginia-bells-journey-from-barrel-girl-to-the-high-court-20081215-6z1n.html, (viewed 31 May 2016); Virginia Bell AC', Current, Justices, High Court of Australia, http://www.hcourt.gov.au/justices/current/justice-bell, (viewed 31 May 2016).

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