New Chief Justice puts ACT’s high Indigenous incarceration rate on priority list

Ian Bushnell 23 November 2021 15
Chief Justice Lucy McCallum

New ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum: “It can’t just come from white fellas telling black fellas what to do. We have to engage respectfully.” Photos: Albert McKnight.

The ACT’s newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice has pinpointed the high number of Indigenous people in jail as a priority issue when she joins the bench in March next year.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury today announced the appointment of Justice Lucy McCallum from the NSW Court of Appeal to replace the retiring Chief Justice Helen Murrell.

Joining Mr Rattenbury outside the ACT Law Courts, Justice McCallum said that while she needed to learn more about the situation in the ACT, she was particularly interested in addressing what most Australian judges would regard as a national tragedy – the over-representation of Indigenous people in jail.

“One thing is to develop systems that engage respectfully with communities, but it can’t just come from white fellas telling black fellas what to do. We have to engage respectfully; hopefully, get Indigenous elders on board,” she said.

“Beyond that, I think I need to hold my fire and learn a bit more about the jurisdiction before I say what’s going to work.”

Justice McCallum also gave an insight into her view of the criminal justice system, saying that generally, there were too many people in prison, and while in some cases it could not be avoided sending people to jail, it was not a long-term solution.

“We need to look at any policies and proposals that would be directed to rehabilitation rather than endless punitive measures,” she said. “Overcrowding in prisons is a problem for all Australians, it’s expensive and it doesn’t necessarily address problems that take people to prisons.

“I’m interested in looking at any measures that improve incarceration rates and rehabilitation rates.”


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The pandemic has played havoc with courts across the nation, particularly jury trials, and dealing with whatever backlog has built up in the ACT will be a priority.

“It’s certainly one of the challenges for every court in the country,” Justice McCallum said.

“Most courts have managed to stay open and work through the pandemic but jury trials are an issue and it’s just a question of all the people in the judicial system working hard to clear the backlog.

“Certainly, I’ll be ready to hit the deck running to learn what the backlog is here and how we can best address it.”

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury announces Justice McCallum’s appointment outside the Law Courts.

Justice McCallum said it would help to be inheriting a bench in good shape and following on from a predecessor who oversaw the building of a new court that persevered through the pandemic.

“This court is an extremely strong court, and Chief Justice Murrell has left it in a very good state, and that makes it all the more exciting for me to come into that position and have the opportunity to listen to what people want to see the court do,” she said.

“My focus will be on building and cementing the ACT’s reputation as a place of excellent jurisprudence.”

The business community will also welcome her comments on delivering justice more quickly.

“I’m interested in the prospect of holding a commercial list that will give the commercial community an excellent centre of justice where they can come and have their disputes resolved quickly,” Justice McCallum said.

Justice McCallum started her legal career in NSW in 1986 after graduating from North Sydney Girls’ High School and going on to the University of NSW to complete her law degree.

Her extensive career included a stint as a prosecutor in Canberra from 1988-90. In 2008 she was appointed to the NSW Supreme Court and in 2019, the NSW Court of Appeal.

She will move to Canberra with her partner and “caravan of animals” in the new year.

The ACT Law Society welcomed her appointment saying she had presided over hundreds of high-profile criminal and civil proceedings, first as a barrister and then as a judge, garnering a reputation for scrupulous fairness.

“The ACT Law Society looks forward to welcoming Her Honour back to Canberra as our sixth Chief Justice,” said Law Society president Elizabeth Carroll.

Mr Rattenbury said the court’s other vacancy, for Justice John Burns who is also retiring, should be filled in February.

He paid tribute to Chief Justice Murrell, the first woman to lead the bench.

“Chief Justice Murrell has steered the ACT Supreme Court for the last eight years and all Canberrans owe her a debt of gratitude for her outstanding contributions to the ACT’s system of justice,” he said.


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15 Responses to New Chief Justice puts ACT’s high Indigenous incarceration rate on priority list
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Cube Starr Cube Starr 6:24 pm 25 Nov 21

Do people realise the judicial system is the end if the line for many disadvantaged people? Fix the core problems and stop trying to fix broken people.

Richard Willcoxson Richard Willcoxson 4:31 pm 24 Nov 21

Have decent programs for them to stop the high rate of reoffending. Generally they are given little to no support once released

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