Citation delivered by Professor Warwick Gullett, Dean of the School of Law at the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Virginia Bell AC as a Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) on 19 December 2013.
For over 35 years, Justice Virginia Bell’s service to the law, and to criminal law and justice in particular, has been outstanding. She enjoys a reputation for technical excellence as a lawyer and judge, as well as for her strong commitment to the role of law and lawyers in advancing social justice.
Justice Bell was appointed to the High Court of Australia in 2009, becoming the fourth woman in history to serve on Australia’s highest court. Prior to this, she had an impressive legal career as a community lawyer, barrister, public defender, senior counsel, law reform commissioner and Supreme Court judge. It was the integrity of her approach to these roles and experiences that led to her High Court appointment.
Justice Bell was educated at the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School. She was an outstanding student and a talented actress. She studied law at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1977, and was soon after admitted as a solicitor in New South Wales.
Justice Bell began her legal career as a volunteer at the newly established Redfern Legal Centre. During her seven years at the legal centre, she was involved in landmark civil liberties cases and was a driving force behind establishing the Prisoners’ Legal Service. Notably, Justice Bell represented 58 people arrested at the first Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras in 1978 and prepared a video for the 1979 march, advising participants of their rights and about how to avoid being arrested.
She began working as a barrister in 1984, joining Frederick Jordan Chambers. In 1986, she was appointed a NSW public defender. During this time, she consolidated her reputation as a strong advocate with a forensic legal mind and an unwavering commitment to social justice. In 1995, she became counsel assisting the Wood Royal Commission, which exposed endemic corruption in the NSW police force. She took silk in 1997. In 1999, she was sworn is as a Judge of the Supreme Court of NSW and was elevated to the Court of Appeal in 2008.
Justice Bell was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2012, the citation noting her eminent service to the judiciary and to the law through leadership in criminal law reform and public policy development, to judicial administration, and as an advocate for the economically and socially disadvantaged.
In addition to her accomplishments at the bar and on the bench, Justice Bell has had a long-standing association with the University of Wollongong. Her father, Captain John Bell, was Estate Manager when UOW first became an autonomous institution and was responsible for much of the design and layout of the Wollongong Campus. John Bell was made a Fellow of the University in 1986 and continued to be an active friend of this institution until his passing. We are very grateful that his daughter has carried on this association with UOW, serving as Chair of the Faculty of Law’s Advisory Committee from 2006 to 2009 until her appointment to the High Court.
Chancellor, for her service to the University of Wollongong and her outstanding contribution to the law and social justice in Australia, it is my honour and privilege to present Justice Virginia Bell AC for the award Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.