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Radical Restraint Justice Michael Kirby
, 1998

by Ralph Heimans

oil on canvas (frame: 185.0 cm x 231.0 cm depth 44.0 cm, support: 183.1 cm x 228.7 cm)

The Hon. Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG (b.1939) was a Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1996 to 2009, having been President of the NSW Court of Appeal from 1984 to 1996. During his first year on the High Court, Kirby was plunged into the Wik Peoples vs The State of Queensland case, the first major Indigenous land title case following the Mabo decision of 1992. In December 1996 Kirby was amongst the judges who ruled that the grant of certain Queensland pastoral leases under past Land Acts did not extinguish Indigenous people’s rights and interests in the land involved – referring personally to the ‘duty which the Crown owed, in honour, to native people who were under the Crown’s protection’. In 1998, in response to the Wik decision, the Australian Government amended the 1993 Native Title Act, which had arisen out of the Mabo case. Michael Kirby has led or served on numerous international committees on subjects relating to human rights, ethics, bioethics and health. He was President of the International Commission of Jurists from 1995 to 1998; during this period, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, the University of Sydney.

This painting by Ralph Heimans (b. 1970) refers to a speech Kirby made when leaving the NSW Court of Appeal, paying tribute to the line of judges before him who wore ‘the crimson and fur’. Two former presidents, Justices Sugerman and Wallace, are identifiable. Before his retirement, Kirby worked nearly every waking moment, even listing his recreation, in Who’s Who, as ‘work’. In preparation for the painting, Heimans sketched him at his desk, and has said that Kirby’s rather impatient glance in the portrait reflects the judge’s expression as the artist asked him to look up for a moment.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased with funds from the Basil Bressler Bequest 2001
Accession number: 2000.35