Cool head leaps into legal hot seat
By Fergus Shiel, Ian Munro
June 26, 2004
The new Chief Justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant, shares a love of the law with a passion for bird-watching.
Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock scored a rare goal this week - announcing a high-profile appointment that was both universally acclaimed and devoid of allegations of political partisanship.
Diana Bryant, QC, has been welcomed as the new Chief Justice of the Family Court with acclaim - a brilliant lawyer, unpretentious, with an innate sense of justice and fairness.
Solicitor Michael Maplestone says if Ms Bryant has a fault, it is trying to fit too much into one day. So when practising law she was chronically late and disruptive of schedules, notably airline schedules. "She used to arrive with about a minute and a half to spare," Mr Maplestone said. "There was one occasion when she was so late they had given her seat away and she managed to talk her way into the cockpit to sit with the pilot."
Busy days may again be a problem for Ms Bryant, who faces a mammoth task as head of what is arguably Australia's most contentious jurisdiction - family, divorce and child custody.
Already she has guided the emergence and growth of the Federal Magistrates Court since 2000. Now Ms Bryant, who was born in Perth and educated at Firbank Grammar School and Melbourne University, will oversee the court that reshapes lives daily amid disputes of child custody and child support.
The new Chief Justice will need to maintain internal morale in the face of external attacks, funding vagaries and fast-changing family dynamics.
Lawyers say Ms Bryant is the ideal person for the task.
The outgoing Chief Justice, Alastair Nicholson, has spent much of his 16 years at the court publicly defending it against litigants, lawyers, men's rights groups, conservative family groups and politicians.
Ms Bryant has made no notable public comments as Chief Magistrate and is not expected to be outspoken like Chief Justice Nicholson. "She is apolitical really, not someone like Alastair Nicholson, say, with a sharply delineated social justice agenda," a family law specialist said.
If there is a defining attribute that marked her time as a barrister, it was her instinctive sense of justice and willingness to pursue it, even at her own cost.
"She helped a lot of people who did not have a lot of money, but who had a case to argue," Mr Maplestone said.
Another colleague cited her support of a woman facing divorce and whose husband, a particularly wealthy man, had hidden most of his assets. The case was still in early stages when the wife was unable to keep paying her lawyer.
"It was a very long-running case and Diana took the view that the justice of the situation was most important and that she continue to act for the wife rather than just take the next brief," David Denton, SC, said. "It was not necessarily known she was funding this one herself to ensure justice was done."
Mr Denton, who shared chambers with Ms Bryant, is obviously a fan, as is Mr Maplestone, who describes her as a brilliant, unpretentious lawyer.
She has also left her mark on the Federal Magistrates Court, which began as a controversial but promising initiative to simplify, demystify, speed up and lessen the expense of procedures for family law litigants, many of them unrepresented.
It has become the preferred court of many lawyers, so popular in fact that the number of matters filed has, at times, outpaced its ability to deal with them.
Victorian Bar Council chairman Robin Brett, QC, said: "She has done an outstanding job as Chief Federal Magistrate and no doubt will do an equally outstanding one as Chief Justice of this important national court."
Justice Nicholson and Ms Bryant, who work in the same Commonwealth courts complex in Melbourne, have shared cases and staff.
A third-generation lawyer who has been practising since 1970, Ms Bryant was appointed a Queen's counsel in 1997. Between 1977 and 1990 she was a partner with the firm of Phillips Fox in Perth where she practised as a solicitor and counsel specialising in family law. She was a director of Australian Airlines from 1984 to 1989.
Ms Bryant and her husband share a passion for ornithology and her enthusiasm for winged creatures is also said to extend to the West Coast Eagles.
The couple often host ornithologists from overseas anxious to visit the wetlands at Werribee. She plays tennis and golf and is an accomplished skier.
Michael Foster, chairman of the family law section of the Law Council of Australia, welcomed her appointment, saying she had the knowledge of family law and personal skills to do the job. "I don't think anyone would say this is a political appointment. Diana has been high on the list of the most appropriate people rather than the most political people," Mr Foster said.
And Rose Lockie, chairwoman of the Victorian Law Institute's family law section, described her as an excellent technical lawyer and a sensitive and ideal member of the bench.
Less effusive, but still guardedly welcoming was Sue Price, spokeswoman for the Men's Rights Agency, a vehement critic of the Family Court under Alastair Nicholson.
Ms Price said Ms Bryant had to be an improvement, and she appeared to have a good grasp of the problems presented by the Child Support Agency.
"Hopefully, she might bring some realism to this situation," Ms Price said. "She is by no means the worst possible appointment."
Ms Bryant takes up her new role on July 5, following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Evatt, the first chief justice of the Family Court and the first woman to head a court in Australia.