Retirement of His Honour Justice Bell from the Family Court of Australia


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Retirement of His Honour Justice Bell from the Family Court of Australia

Retirement of a Legend in Law – Judge Bell of the Family Court of Australia

Appointed in 1976, Judge Bell has served in one of the most demanding Judicial posts in terms of emotions, the range of presenting issues and the pressures of impacting families with the outcomes dictated by rulings.

After presiding in the Family Court of Australia for almost 40 years, His Honour is retiring, hopefully to enjoy a long post-judicial life amongst his family and friends.

His Honour attended Churchie, one of Brisbane’s GPS schools and went on to study law. After pursuing a promising career as a lawyer, he was appointed very soon after the new regime of the Family Law Act commenced in 1975. At a recent function to celebrate his service, His Honour recounted with great humour, some of his experiences during those early days where limited resources often resulted in comical days and sittings. It was lovely to meet his Wife at the function, who I later realised had been one of the teachers at the Burleigh Heads Kindergarten I attended in the 1970’s (beside the old police station and library).

Earlier in my career, as he often did with junior lawyers, His Honour was putting me though some testing and probing questions about my client’s case. He appeared to bounce me from one subject to the next and have me deal with topics he wanted me to address in a less than chronological or methodical manner. At the end of answering his questions, I paused and there was a moment when he gave me a wry smile and asked me whether I had any further submissions. I responded by saying that I had a number of points still to cover and returned to address him in the chronological manner I had intended. At the end of the hearing, His Honour thanked me for bearing with his questions and for continuing.

On another memorable occasion, His Honour presided over a trial where I acted for the Husband and the Wife had accused the Husband of rape, sexual misconduct and significant abuses. I was pretty busy with my head down finding the next piece of evidence and getting exhibits in order for the QC briefed to continue cross-examining witnesses. The client kept tapping me and telling me the Judge was falling asleep and how was he going to get a fair hearing if this continued. Sure enough, I kept an eye on Judge Bell who was leaning back in his chair and had his eyes closed, breathing deeply.

But of course, His Honour, proved us all wrong when an objection occurred to some questioning and he repeated a significant tranche of the evidence given on the topic almost verbatim and then gave detailed reasoning using earlier evidence from the time the client suspected the Judge was sleeping. This author never had any doubts (cough) after that point, that His Honour had a keen eye, ear and wit.

There was also the time when His Honour and QC briefed in a matter had an exchange about the whereabouts of someone’s name:-

His Honour: [States name out loud]….I wonder where that originates from….

QC: Probably from his mother Your Honour

His Honour: Guffaws…Oh Mr [X] QC….you’re so talented”

and His Honour periodically chuckled and smiled for a good 15 minutes

I also enjoyed his warm regard for self-represented litigants, with whom he was understanding and kind. However, if the self-represented litigants crossed a line or were disrespectful, His Honour was swift, decisive and certain to bring the litigants back to the point of understanding that having been unable to resolve their matter by negotiation, they had ceded the decision-making power to His Honour.

I respected his ability to give ex tempore Judgments at the conclusion of evidence and when doing so, to recite the facts so plainly and correctly as if he stood possessed of a transcript.

I understand that we may not be allocated a replacement for Judge Bell to the Brisbane Registry of the Court and that would be a great pity, because if there was a replacement of similar ability, parties and lawyers could expect good humour, candour, prompt decisions and a refrain from blow-outs in waiting times for hearings and trial dates.

My staff and I wish Judge Bell happiness and good health in retirement but will lament the loss of what he offered in His Honour’s services to the Court.