Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2012

Michael Kirby, Law, Love & Life, (2012) by Daryl Dellora

The Honourable Justice Michael Kirby, AC, CMG, is one of a small number of High Court judges with a public profile outside the rarified atmosphere of the judicial system.  While this high profile is merited by his remarkable achievements (which you can read about at Wikipedia), it is probably also true to say that is also partly due to undeserved notoriety.

Notoriety is not a word one would usually apply to a High Court judge, and certainly not to a judge who dedicated his career to protecting human rights.  Justice Kirby is a good man, and an honorable man.  The unjustified notoriety derives from the appalling behaviour of others who made scurrilous allegations against him under parliamentary privilege, and although these have been retracted, nevertheless it is pleasing to see that Daryl Dellora has written this biography to set the record straight in a straightforward, highly accessible style that will maximise its chances of being widely read.

A gifted, reclusive student, Michael Kirby was a product of the State Education system in NSW, who went on to graduate from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Laws, a Bachelor of Economics and a Master of Laws with First Class Honours before finally leaving university to go to the Bar in 1967.   From the outset he was interested in human rights, and his distinguished career in the Law Reform Commission led to many improvements in our legal system.  He was unfortunate in that for most of his time in the High Court it was characterised by a conservative attitude towards interpreting the law, and so he was most often the dissenting voice speaking up for reform.

Justice Kirby was sometimes criticised for ‘making law’, but judges have always done more than simply apply law.   As I learned in first year Law at the University of Queensland* the classic example of judges making law is the famous UK case of Donoghue v. Stevenson which extended the law of negligence in 1932 to apply to someone who has suffered injury even if they don’t have a direct contract with the manufacturer.  If you get food poisoning from a snail in a bottle of ginger beer, you can sue the manufacturer who negligently allowed it to happen.   But it wasn’t parliament that made that law – it was the judges in that case who did so.    They can’t invent new law out of thin air, they have to apply precedents from other cases and from the existing law, but they can, if they are so minded, interpret the law more widely – usually in the cause of justice and common sense, but quixotically, not always.   (But parliament can always pass a new law to overturn it if they are so minded).   If Daryl Dellora has any criticism of Justice Kirby at all it is that he failed to persuade his fellow judges on the High Court to be more flexible…

Justice Kirby has also been a powerful role model for members of the gay community – his homosexuality is probably the real reason why The Unenlightened in the Howard Government were out to get him, and was certainly the tool they used to try to discredit him and force his resignation from the High Court.   He has been with his partner Johan van Vloten for more than forty years and finally felt able to make this public by listing Johan as his partner in his Who’s Who entry in 1999.  As Dellora explains, Justice Kirby’s private life and career meshed in this arena, because his own life choices were compromised by homophobic discrimination but he sees the need for reform as part of a wider commitment to human rights in general.  He would fight for gay rights if he were straight, too.

The Penguin website blurb calls this an ‘intimate‘ biography, but to some extent, the man remains behind the shield of his career.  We learn about Justice Kirby’s childhood and family, his relationship, a little about his travels and a lot about his work and the ensuing travails, but his inner life remains elusive.  The friends that are mentioned are friends from his career path, and his interests and tastes seem masked by a sense that his work has been his life, perhaps to the exclusion of other things which might have brought him pleasure or fulfilment.  To put it another way, having read 360 pages about him, I still wouldn’t know who to introduce him to at a party, unless I had another workaholic guest working in the same field.  He’s travelled widely, but I can’t imagine him chatting about the art treasures of Europe with my equally well-travelled friends.

It’s an interesting biography, but I’d like to see his memoirs one day!

* This was back in the 1980s when I thought I might fancy a change of career.  I enjoyed the study and got high marks for everything but I eventually abandoned the degree because (a) I realised that I didn’t want to spend my career amongst lawyers –  I have an aversion to wearing suits, and (b) UQ was hopeless at organising this degree by correspondence.  They provided the course materials and the readings after the assignments were due LOL.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Daryl Dellora
Title: Michael Kirby, Law, Love & Life
Publisher: Viking (Penguin) 2012
ISBN: 9780670075980
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Books

Fishpond: Michael Kirby: Law, Love and Life

Or direct from Penguin where you can also read an excerpt.


  1. This is one I’d like to read; so many books I’d like to read!!



    • Ha ha, and you’re retired! How come all my friends who are retired seem to have less spare time than I do? I think I’m better off at work LOL


  2. “To put it another way, having read 360 pages about him, I still wouldn’t know who to introduce him to at a party” – this was an effective way of demonstrating that the biography did not reveal much of the private persona of Justice Michael Kirby.

    He has written a memoir, though I don’t know how complete it is. You may also be interested in his website. He has made such a contribution to Australia over the years!


    • Hello Yvonne, wow, how nice to see all the comments congratulating him for his contribution to public life on that website. Thanks for the info about the memoir, I might see if I can get hold of it too. CHeers, Lisa


  3. Hi Lisa … he has written a memoir … my dad has read it. It’s called A private life and was published by Allen and Unwin last year. I haven’t read it yet though.


  4. Sounds like an interesting biography of a very interesting man. I think I might prefer the memoir though. It is just incredible to imagine going that long and feeling unable to publicly acknowledge your partner. So terribly sad.
    Wow, I find new things out about you all the time. Those in the literary world and the youngsters in the education system would no doubt be relieved that you abandoned the law.


  5. Very good review Lisa – of someone I’ve never heard of before.

    The only think I could say about being retired is that when you add family and community responsibilities and various other distractions into the mix, there can be less time for reading than before – I speak as someone who was used to long train journeys to work, providing up to 2 hours reading a day.

    Our daughter in law is a lawyer and hates it. I think you are well off out of it.

    I left a reply to you on mine about comment systems. Problems all round I fear!


    • I know exactly what you mean Tom about retirement and reading. I’m gobsmacked!


      • O I would love to be able to travel to work by train and read a book on the way, that would be sooooo nice!
        Actually, I was sort of offered a job in the city some years back – and it would have enabled me to commute by train – but I discovered that I had an aversion to bureaucrats as well, so that was the end of that career path too.


  6. not too aware of this chap ,he seems to be very well known from other commentors reactions ,I think the lack of his private life so much is ok people need privacy sometimes ,all the best stu


    • You may be right, Stu. I can’t tell whether the author is constrained by restraint or by not having full access to papers or privileged information. This would be a different bio altogether if written after his death.


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