Robert French

Robert Shenton French AC (born 19 March 1947) is a retired Australian lawyer and judge who served as the twelfth Chief Justice of Australia, in office from 2008 to 2017. He has been the chancellor of the University of Western Australia since 2017.[1]

Robert French
Robert French.jpg
12th Chief Justice of Australia
In office
1 September 2008 – 29 January 2017
Nominated byKevin Rudd
Appointed byMichael Jeffery
Preceded byMurray Gleeson
Succeeded bySusan Kiefel
Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong
Assumed office
31 May 2017
Appointed byLeung Chun-ying
Personal details
Born (1947-03-19) 19 March 1947 (age 74)
Perth, Western Australia
Chinese name

French was born in Perth, Western Australia, and is a graduate of the University of Western Australia. He was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in 1972, and appointed to the Federal Court in 1986, serving as a justice on that court until his elevation to the High Court. He also held a number of other positions during that time, notably serving as chancellor of Edith Cowan University (1991–1997), chairman of the National Native Title Tribunal (1994–1998), and on the Supreme Court of Fiji (2003–2008). In July 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd named French to succeed Murray Gleeson as chief justice, taking office just over a month later. He became the first chief justice from Western Australia, and the third justice overall (after Sir Ronald Wilson and John Toohey).[2]

Early life and educationEdit

French was educated at St. Louis School (now John XXIII College) in Perth.[3][dead link] 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.[4]

French attended the University of Western Australia in Perth, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics in 1968.[5][6] 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[7] and served briefly as treasurer of the University of Western Australia Student Guild.[citation needed]


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..[7] He is a close friend of Kim Beazley, Jr..[2] 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.[4] He worked on important cases, such as the High Court case, Yager v The Queen,[8] which focused on complex matters of law and botanical science.[9]

The Hawke government appointed French to the Federal Court in 1986, at the age of 39.[10]

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.[11]

Chief Justice French (right) swearing in Governor-General Peter Cosgrove in March 2014.

On 30 July 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that French would succeed Murray Gleeson as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.[12] He was sworn in on 1 September 2008.[13] 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 Australian 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).[3]

On 18 January 2017, French was appointed a non-permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He is given a Chinese name "范禮全" by the Hong Kong Judiciary.[14]

French retired as Chief Justice on 29 January 2017. He was succeeded by Susan Kiefel.[15]

On 20 June 2017, the University of Western Australia announced French's appointment as UWA's fifteenth chancellor. He succeeded Dr Michael Chaney AO as chancellor on November 2017.[16]

Beliefs and positionsEdit

On politicsEdit

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,[17] small-L liberal,[18] and moderate.[19]

On republicanismEdit

French said in a WA Law Society speech in May 2008:[2]

"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 issuesEdit

Justice French is known for working for the rights of Indigenous Australians: in the early 1970s, he helped found the WA Aboriginal Legal Service.[2] 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.[20]

However, the 'French Testing' incident has coloured the legacy of French on indigenous issues. French admitted his 'error' when he explained the incident:[2]

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 lifeEdit

French is a fan of the Fremantle Dockers AFL team.[24] 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.[6][25]


  1. ^ "UWA Welcomes 15th Chancellor". University of Western Australia. Retrieved 2 February 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d Johnson, Chris (31 July 2008). "Intellectual all-rounder will change court subtly". The West Australian.
  3. ^ a b Who's Who in Australia
  4. ^ a b "Chief Justice Robert French". International Science School, University of Sydney. Archived from the original on 29 March 2018. Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  5. ^ "Graduate profiles". School of Physics, University of Western Australia.
  6. ^ a b "UWA graduate named Chief Justice". University of Western Australia. 31 July 2008.
  7. ^ a b "Robert French new Chief Justice of the High Court". The Australian. 30 July 2008. Archived from the original on 4 August 2008. Retrieved 30 July 2008.
  8. ^ "Yager v The Queen (1977) 139 CLR 28". High Court of Australia.
  9. ^ Bosse, Jocelyn (2020). "Before the High Court: the legal systematics of Cannabis". Griffith Law Review: 1–28. doi:10.1080/10383441.2020.1804671.
  10. ^ "The Hon Robert Shenton FRENCH". Federal Court of Australia. 31 July 2008.
  11. ^ "Ruddock v Vadarlis". Federal Court of Australia. 28 September 2001.
  12. ^ "Robert French". The Australian.
  13. ^ "Rudd names new chief justice". The Sydney Morning Herald. 30 July 2008.
  14. ^ "Appointment of non-permanent judges from other common law jurisdictions of the Court of Final Appeal". Government of Hong Kong. 18 January 2017. Retrieved 16 November 2017.
  15. ^ Chan, Gabrielle (29 November 2016). "Susan Kiefel becomes first female high court chief justice". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  16. ^ "Robert French named UWA's 15th Chancellor".
  17. ^ Karen Kissane; Sarah-Jane Collins (31 July 2008). "Surprise choice in judicial top post". The Age. Fairfax Media.
  18. ^ "Justice French I: wresting back the High Court". Crikey. 31 July 2008.
  19. ^ "A worthy chief justice". The Australian. 31 July 2008.
  20. ^ Pelly, Michael,[1] The Australian, 1 September 2008. Accessed 2008-09-08.
  21. ^ "It's an Honour: Centenary Medal". Archived from the original on 4 June 2011. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
  22. ^ "It's an Honour: AC". Archived from the original on 4 June 2011. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
  23. ^ "Australian Academy of Law - Member public profile". Australian Academy of Law. Retrieved 31 July 2020.
  24. ^ Harrison, Dan (2 September 2008). "New Chief Justice proves he is fit to lead the way". The Age. Fairfax Media.
  25. ^ A. M. Ferrante; J. A. Fernandez; N. S. N. Loh (1998). "Crime and Justice Statistics for Western Australia: 1998" (PDF). Crime Research Centre, University of Western Australia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 January 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2013.
Legal offices
Preceded by
Chief Justice of Australia
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Non-Permanent Judge of the Court of Final Appeal of Hong Kong