Saturday, 19 July 2008

Justice Kirby comes to Oxford

Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia gave a speech at Rhodes House yesterday evening. Kirby is known for his liberal, activist approach to his decision-making, his tireless advocacy for law to serve the weak and vulnerable, and also for his openness about being gay. For anyone who studied law in Australia from the mid-1990s, Kirby was your bread and rice. He represented - pretty much invariably - the dissenting view and was therefore in all your textbooks and then in all your essays. Students love him, partly because of the humour factor ('he's at it again that crazy cat'), but mostly because he has such a refreshingly political, compassionate tone in his judgments.

Justice Kirby's talk was on the impact of international human rights law on the construction of the Constitution of Australia. He did not seem overly interested in giving this talk; I had the impression he would have preferred to (continue to) talk about Oxford, the Rhodes scholarship (that eluded him), the benefits to the UK in financially supporting Australians and other non-national students, and the importance of lawyers and law students to be energetic, to maintain a positive, idealistic version of the law, and to uncharacteristically extend their knowledge to inform their understanding of law.

Nevertheless, he dutifully gave a well-cited overview of the developments in Australia - only once looking to his notes, which was refreshing in this powerpoint era (boo to people using powerpoint as palm cards!). He argued that Australian judges are, for the most part, willing to refer to the judicial interpretation of foreign Bills of Rights to help them with their own reasoning, but that Australia (like the United States and...China) was still unhealthily reluctant to engage with the wider international (legal) community.

At the end of his talk (which he marked by asking us to 'now give an applause' for him), Kirby addressed the student body directly, reminding us that our marks at university were only a small part of success in life and that being a successful human was more important, not least, because successful humans were more likely to become more giving, generous, thoughtful lawyers. He told us to remain idealistic; even though the law is good at keeping rich people rich, it also has the potential and power to help less advantaged groups in society. He singled out Professor Julius Stone as the person who most inspired this unswerving belief in the law.

The law does make one very confused sometimes...It's difficult to remain idealistic in an active, confident way, but it's also intellectually dishonest and unhelpful to maintain that it does not have the potential for good within our (capitalist) society. I sometimes wonder though if we give it too much credit for its 'potential'....It gets away with a lot, the old law! But then again, it's expected to do a lot...Hmm...Confused again.

(photo courtesy of ABC)

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