Celebrating 100 Years of the Commonwealth Solicitor-General

Venue: 
Banco Court, Level 13, Law Courts Building, Queens Square, Sydney
Organisation: 
Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law and the Australian Association of Constitutional Law
Time: 
6.00 pm - 7.30 pm
Date: 
Mon, 2016-10-24

On Monday 24 October, around 250 people gathered in the Banco Court of the New South Wales Supreme Court at an event hosted by the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law and the Australian Association of Constitutional Law (NSW Chapter), to celebrate 100 years since the introduction of the first Commonwealth Solicitor-General.

In that century, the office has evolved from its origins under the Solicitor-General Act 1916 (Cth), as a public servant who both assisted the Attorney-General and held the position of Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, to an independent statutory officeholder under the Law Officers Act 1964 (Cth). Today, the Solicitor-General fills a wholly professional role, acting as legal counsel to the government in the most significant legal matters. Over the preceding century, a myriad of conventions and practices have grown up around the office to facilitate this role.

Ten lawyers have held the role of the Solicitor-General, and the audience heard from five of them. Sir Anthony Mason, former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia and Commonwealth Solicitor-General between 1964 and 1969, opened the event. A panel discussion followed between former Solicitors-General, the Honourable Robert Ellicott QC, former Judge of the Federal Court of Australia, Commonwealth Attorney-General and Commonwealth Solicitor-General (1969-1973), Dr Gavan Griffith AO QC, Essex Court Chambers and Owen Dixon Chambers, former Commonwealth Solicitor-General (1984-1997), Dr David Bennett AC QC, 5 Wentworth Chambers, former Commonwealth Solicitor-General (1998-2008) and the Honourable Justice Stephen Gageler, High Court of Australia, former Commonwealth Solicitor-General (2008-2012). The panel was facilitated by Associate Professor Gabrielle Appleby, author of the recent book on the Solicitor-General, The Role of the Solicitor-General: Negotiating Law, Politics and the Public Interest (Hart Publishing, 2016).

At the event commemorating 100 years of the Solicitor-General, the audience heard former officeholders explain the importance of the role, the importance of independence in fulfilling the role, and the importance of good working relationships between the Solicitor-General and the government.

The event fell on a momentous day in the history of the Solicitor-General. It celebrated the milestone of 100 years since the creation of an office that is widely accepted to be integral to the rule of law. But it also proved to be an occasion to express concern over the future of the office in light of recent events.

On the day of the event, the current Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson SC, resigned from the office. He said that his relationship with the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis QC, was ‘irretrievably broken’. His resignation followed a protracted and public series of disagreements between the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, the catalyst of which was the issue of a direction by the Attorney-General restricting access to the Solicitor-General by others in government. In his resignation letter, the Solicitor-General said that there was ‘an urgent need to negotiate an effective way forward between the Law Officers’.

A Storify page, capturing social media commentary about the event, is available here. The Storify was prepared by Lynsey Blayden and Gabrielle Appleby

The flyer is available here.