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Robert French

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Robert French

The Honourable Chief Justice
Robert French
12th Chief Justice of Australia
Assumed office
1 September 2008
Nominated by Kevin Rudd
Appointed by Michael Jeffery
Preceded by Murray Gleeson
Personal details
Born (1947-03-19) 19 March 1947
Nationality Australian
Spouse(s) Valerie
Children 3
Religion Roman Catholicism

Robert Shenton French AC (born 19 March 1947) is the twelfth and current Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, the highest court in the Australian court hierarchy.

Although two other Western Australians, Sir Ronald Wilson and John Toohey, have been High Court judges, Robert French is the first Chief Justice from that state.[1]


French was educated at St. Louis School (now John XXIII College) in Perth.[2] Notably, he was one of two students from Western Australia to attend the International Science School, then known as the Nuclear Research Foundation Summer Science School, in 1964 at the University of Sydney.[3]

French attended the University of Western Australia in Perth, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics in 1968.[4][5] He then continued with further study at the University of Western Australia, earning a Bachelor of Laws in 1971. He was President of the University's Liberal Club[6] and served briefly as treasurer of the University of Western Australia Student Guild.


In 1969, at the age of 22, French contested the safe Labor Federal seat of Fremantle for the Liberal Party, which he lost to Kim Beazley, Sr..[6] He is a close friend of Kim Beazley, Jr..[1] French served as President of the Fremantle Branch of the Liberal Party and hence on the State Executive of the Party.

In 1972, French was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in Western Australia.[3]

The Hawke government appointed French to the Federal Court in 1986, at the age of 39.[7]

During the Tampa Affair, French was part of the Full Court of the Federal Court that reversed the order of habeas corpus that had been earlier granted by a single judge.[8]

On 30 July 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that French would succeed Murray Gleeson as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, in part due to his low profile.[9] He was sworn in on 1 September 2008.[10] He is the first Chief Justice of the High Court not to have taken silk at appointment.

French has served on numerous bodies including as part-time Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission (2006–08), Additional Judge of the Supreme Court of the ACT (2004–08), Judge of the Supreme Court of Fiji (2003–08), President of the National Native Title Tribunal (1994–98), Council Member of the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration (1992-08), Chancellor of Edith Cowan University (1991–97), Member of the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia (1986), Chairman of the Town Planning Appeals Tribunal of Western Australia (1986), Associate Member of the Trade Practices Commission (1983–86), member of the Legal Aid Commission of Western Australia (1983–86), Member of the Barrister's Board of Western Australia (1979–86), and Chairman of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (1973–75).[2]

French has also been a justice of the Supreme Court of Fiji.

Beliefs and positions

On politics

Although once the President of the Liberal Club of the University of Western Australia, French's views are described as being closer to social progressive,[11] small-L liberal,[12] and moderate.[13]

On republicanism

French said in a WA Law Society speech in May 2008:[1]

"It is unacceptable in contemporary Australia that the legal head of the Australian state... can never be chosen by the people or their representatives, cannot be other than a member of the Anglican Church, can never be other than British and can never be an indigenous person."

On indigenous issues

Justice French is known for working for the rights of Indigenous Australians: in the early 1970s, he helped found the WA Aboriginal Legal Service.[1] He was also the first president of the National Native Title Tribunal.

At his swearing-in ceremony as Chief Justice, French specifically referred to the long history of indigenous Australia:

Recognition of their presence is no mere platitude. The history of Australia's indigenous people dwarfs, in its temporal sweep, the history that gave rise to the Constitution under which this court was created.Our awareness and recognition of that history is becoming, if it has not already become, part of our national identity.[14]

However, the 'French Testing' incident has coloured the legacy of French on indigenous issues. French admitted his 'error' when he explained the incident:[1]

As I soon discovered, the responsibilities of an administrator trying to develop procedures to implement a legal process are very different from those of a judge required to decide a particular case about whether an administrator's decision is legally flawed. The Tribunal was judicially reviewed on many occasions. The high point or low point, depending on your point of view, occurred after I had refused registration of a claim by the Waanyi people over land the subject of the proposed Century Zinc mine in North Queensland. I refused registration on the basis that the application could not succeed because of the extinguishing effects of historical pastoral leases in the area. I took the view that observations about the extinguishing effects of leases made by Brennan J in Mabo put the matter beyond doubt. My refusal to register the claim was an administrative act in the application of a test designed to screen out hopeless claims. The decision was overturned by the High Court in North Ganalanja[2] with such moral enthusiasm that the Court gave judgment immediately and reasons later. In so doing, it described my approach as "tantamount to a proleptic exercise of federal jurisdiction". To add insult to injury, members of the Waanyi people were sitting in Court wearing T-shirts with the message "Ban French Testing". I have no doubt, in retrospect, that I was properly found to have been in error. The considerations influencing my approach were those of the administrator, the urgent need to get the process moving and to establish its credibility in the face of ongoing attacks. There was a legal bottleneck on the issue of the relationship between pastoral leases and native title which was not resolved until the decision in Wik. Many ill-prepared applications were being lodged and upon registration were entitled to procedural rights affecting third party interests particularly in relation to mining and the release of Crown land for development around regional centres. I learned a useful lesson from all of this and that is that the worldview and culture of the administrator which I had adopted is very different from that of the courts.


Personal life

French is a fan of the Fremantle Dockers AFL team.[17] He is married to Valerie J. French, who completed her LL.B. at the University of Western Australia in 1971 and has served as the President of the Children's Court of Western Australia.[5][18] He has three children, one of whom is a lawyer.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d Johnson, Chris (31 July 2008). "Intellectual all-rounder will change court subtly".  
  2. ^ a b Who's Who in Australia
  3. ^ a b "Chief Justice Robert French". International Science School, University of Sydney. 
  4. ^ "Graduate profiles". School of Physics, University of Western Australia. 
  5. ^ a b "UWA graduate named Chief Justice". University of Western Australia. 31 July 2008. 
  6. ^ a b "Robert French new Chief Justice of the High Court".  
  7. ^ "The Hon Robert Shenton FRENCH". Federal Court of Australia. 31 July 2008. 
  8. ^ "Ruddock v Vadarlis". Federal Court of Australia. 28 September 2001. 
  9. ^ "Robert French". The Australian. 
  10. ^ "Rudd names new chief justice".  
  11. ^ a b Karen Kissane; Sarah-Jane Collins (31 July 2008). "Surprise choice in judicial top post". The Age. Fairfax Media. 
  12. ^ "Justice French I: wresting back the High Court". Crikey. 31 July 2008. 
  13. ^ "A worthy chief justice". The Australian. 31 July 2008. 
  14. ^ Pelly, Michael,[2]The Australian, 2008-09-01. Accessed 2008-09-08.
  15. ^ It's an Honour: Centenary Medal
  16. ^ It's an Honour: AC
  17. ^ Harrison, Dan (2 September 2008). "New Chief Justice proves he is fit to lead the way". The Age. Fairfax Media. 
  18. ^ A. M. Ferrante; J. A. Fernandez; N. S. N. Loh (1998). "Crime and Justice Statistics for Western Australia: 1998". Crime Research Centre, University of Western Australia. 
Legal offices
Preceded by
Murray Gleeson
Chief Justice of Australia
2008 – present
Succeeded by
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