'Humble barrister' set for High Court

A SAWMILLER'S son with a black belt in taekwondo was yesterday appointed Australia's 49th High Court judge.

Stephen Gageler, SC, who has been Commonwealth Solicitor-General since 2008, will join the bench in October when Justice William Gummow turns 70, the compulsory retirement age for High Court judges.

After declaring in March she wanted to cast a wider net for judges and counter the over-representation of male barristers from Sydney on the land's highest court, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon yesterday announced the appointment of Mr Gageler - a male barrister from Sydney.

''I always have said that the best person for the job would be chosen. I believe that Stephen is the best person for the job,'' she said.

Mr Gageler's appointment was universally welcomed yesterday, including by the federal opposition and the Law Council of Australia. New South Wales Attorney-General Greg Smith said Mr Gageler had ''the necessary depth of knowledge and intelligence to make an excellent contribution to the High Court'', while the president of the NSW Bar Association, Bernard Coles, QC praised him as ''one of this country's finest legal minds''.

Mr Gageler, 54, was born in the Upper Hunter Region of NSW, on a four-hectare property that also housed his father and grandfather's sawmill business.

He attended Muswellbrook High School before completing law and economics degrees at the Australian National University and a master of laws at Harvard. After graduating from the ANU he worked as an associate to High Court judge Sir Anthony Mason, who coincidentally was the last Commonwealth solicitor-general to be appointed to the High Court. Mr Gageler is married with three children.

Paul Daley, the clerk of Eleven Wentworth chambers, where Mr Gageler worked from 1991 until 2008, yesterday described Mr Gageler as ''one of the most humble barristers''. ''He is one of the most unassuming, down to earth [senior counsel] you would ever meet. Everyone just absolutely loved him.''

As Solicitor-General, Mr Gageler has made the Commonwealth's case in its successful defence of cigarette plain packaging laws, as well as its losses on the Malaysia solution and the national school chaplaincy program.

But experts yesterday said these defeats were not a reflection of Mr Gageler's abilities. ''I've never seen anyone who has doubted his qualities as a lawyer or advocate,'' said George Williams, the Anthony Mason Professor of Law at the University of NSW. ''Even the very best lawyers and advocates will suffer defeats. In any case, somebody's got to win and lose.''

Mr Gageler is the third appointment by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments to the seven-member bench of the High Court, following the appointments of Chief Justice Robert French and Justice Virginia Bell.

The government will announce another appointment before the end of the year to replace Justice Dyson Heydon, who is due to retire next March.

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