Judge in residence

By Emma Henderson

The Hon. Michael Black AC QC is Melbourne Law School's first Judge in Residence.


JD student, Emma Henderson, spoke to the former Federal Court Chief Justice about his career, the law and his new role.

On Chief Justice Michael Black's retirement from the Federal Court, former attorney general Robert McClelland said: "Although you are retiring as Chief Justice, I think it is safe to say that you will continue to make an important contribution to the nation and in particular our nation's legal  system."

One of the many ways the Hon. Michael Black AC QC (LLB 1963, HonLLD 2010) will continue his contribution to the legal profession is at Melbourne Law School as the inaugural Judge in Residence.

Black hopes the Judge in Residence scheme will allow students to gain an insight into the practice of law.

"I remember my own experience; I found the law quite obscure until I actually saw the law at work in my articles year."

The Judge in Residence scheme will see retired or current judges spending a period of weeks or months in the Law School to engage with students and academic staff.

Already Black has spoken at a Law Student Society function, twice judged the Jessup moot team in exhibitions, joined LLM students for an introductory session, attended Law School functions and has plans for research.

Black's dissenting judgment in Ruddock v Vadarlis is well known to JD students who study it early in their first year. When told this, he responds: "In my experience, law students have a fascination with how the law works in practice and, for whatever reason, they find it extremely interesting talking to the people who have decided the cases they have read."

Black says that historically there is a long tradition  of judges and barristers lecturing at the Law School. He hopes the Judge in Residence scheme can bring the students, the academy and the judiciary closer together "for a better understanding of each other."

Black has had a long interest in teaching and legal education, serving as the foundation chairman of the Victorian Bar's Readers' Course and as a member of the board of the Leo Cussen Institute.

"I've always been involved in teaching in one form or another. When I began at the Bar you weren't allowed to have any other paid work except teaching. In your first year at the Bar you didn't really make any money and it was desirable to have a supplement and I supplemented my income by tutoring in the Political Science Department at Melbourne University and at Trinity College."

Black also chaired the advisory committee for the establishment of the Melbourne JD. "I am a great supporter of the idea of a graduate degree. The best lawyers are those who have a broad view of the world, are not narrow in their thoughts or in their interests, and it seemed to me that the JD and the Melbourne Model gave a better chance that lawyers would be those with broad interests and a depth of intellect."

Black says diversity is a positive thing, especially in a creative field such as law.

"I see law as a very creative profession … The practice of the law involves the creative application of principle and intellect to solving your clients' problems."

Having no family background in law, it was Black's youthful, idealised view of the barrister that attracted him to a career in law.

"I think I had a romantic conception of the role of the barrister as someone getting on a white horse and riding off to save people from disaster."

This romantic conception stayed with him throughout his career. The memory of the ideal brings a wistful smile to his face and he concludes, "there is an element of truth to it."

"Looking back, I have not been disappointed in that  sense in my life at the Bar… Although not everyone for whom one appeared was deserving, it was very rare that I didn't feel that I was doing something worthwhile and I still feel that."

I see law as a very creative profession … The practice of the law involves the creative application of principle and intellect to solving your clients' problems.

Black had an old-fashioned start to his career at the Bar. The very day he was admitted to practise he went straight to the Bar. Only a few years later he was before the High Court. The story of his first High Court appearance is one he admits he likes to tell.

In the same week as he appeared before the High Court, he also appeared before the Supreme Court of Victoria, a Court of Petty Sessions in country Victoria and a body he thinks was called the Tow Truck Operator Appeals Tribunal.

"You remember your great cases. That was my first appearance in the High Court. I was pretty young. It was nerve-wracking but it was also exhilarating. Moreover, we won and the Chief Justice made a nice comment about my argument in his judgment."

Black reflects on his time as a judge with the same fondness and recalls the many reforms he led with pride. He names his two most significant reforms at the Federal Court as the introduction of the docket and fast-track systems.

The individual docket system requires a judge to assume responsibility for a case from its inception and then manage the case isolating the essential issues in order to determine the matter quickly and efficiently.

The fast-track system involves an intense focus on relevance at a very early stage in the procedures. These were significant reforms and were faced with resistance.

"There is always resistance to reform; it takes various forms. A lot of it is simply caution; other aspects are a mere comfort with the way things have always been done. It's a human response."

"I don't see any of this as particularly radical. Determining a case by getting to the heart of the real issues very  early in the piece should not be seen as radical."

"I don't think the modern role of the judge is incompatible with their role as the impartial judge of the issues. We had very few appeals in fast-track cases and none on the grounds that the judge was too interventionist."

Despite the reforms' success Black said reformers need to keep pressing on.

"Procedural reform is like a vessel with an inherent tendency to slip off the wind. You have to constantly bring it back onto the right course. You have to constantly adjust the sails and keep a close eye on it. Otherwise it will end up drifting – or worse."

In his time at the bench Black's view of the law as a creative profession stayed with him. "Whilst emphasising the role of the judge in applying principle, I think vision is a good thing … principle has to prevail but that doesn't mean to say that you can't have visions and ideas about the law."

"The judges whom I remember from my time at the Bar as great trial judges were, as well as being good lawyers, fair and balanced, hard-working, good humoured, decent people who liked and who understood people."

Black's reforms at the Federal Court extended to the building itself. He has a passion for architecture. His ideals are embodied in the architecture of the Federal Court buildings. Light and space were symbols of accessibility and access to justice.

"They were to be egalitarian buildings … The views were to be shared by the public, the judges and the staff."

When asked what he thinks of the Melbourne Law School building, the former Chief Justice smiles with enthusiasm: "I absolutely love this building."

"The fact that my office here looks out over University Square I think is wonderful … and the students and staff have the same views over University Square as the Dean."

The Law School building echoes Black's egalitarian ideals, where the views and natural light are shared. "Light is a fine symbol of a university. Light and vision are great symbols for a great law school."

Banner image: The new Judge in Residence, The Hon. Michael Black AC QC, was interviewed by JD student Emma Henderson.
Credit: Peter Casamento

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 7, May 2012.