University of Melbourne Magazine

Backing herself

  • Victoria’s new Director of Public Prosecutions ignored early career advice and went on to scale great heights in the law. By Gary Tippet

    Victoria’s top prosecutor, Kerri Judd, wants women to “keep pushing and keep striving” for key roles at the Bar. PICTURE: STEVE McKENZIE

    Victoria’s top
    Kerri Judd, wants
    women to “keep
    pushing and keep
    striving” for key
    roles at the Bar.

    One day in the early 1980s, as Kerri Judd (LLB 1987, LLM 1995) was nearing the end of secondary school in suburban Croydon in Melbourne’s outer east, she sat down with a careers teacher and said she wanted to become a lawyer. Essentially, she was told to forget it. The teacher simply said, “Don’t waste your preferences on law.”

    Judd didn’t.

    That is to say, she didn’t listen to the teacher – and she certainly didn’t waste her preferences. Already on her way to becoming the girls’ dux in 1983 at what was then Croydon High, Judd went on, as she had hoped, to study law at the University of Melbourne, became a judge’s associate, and signed the Bar Roll in 1991.

    Since then, she has had a varied and exemplary legal career, working in criminal and civil matters, and appearing in Victoria, New South Wales and the Northern Territory in the County and Supreme Courts, as well as in Royal Commissions and appeals before the High Court. She took silk in 2007 – becoming a Senior Counsel, now Queen’s Counsel – and, in 2016, became a Senior Crown Prosecutor. In March, she was appointed Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions, one of the most senior, demanding and responsible roles in the state’s legal system.

    So, the teacher’s pessimistic assessment no longer rankles: “I think her reasoning was that I came from a public school and that no-one before had got into law from that school,” Judd says during an interview in her office in Melbourne’s legal precinct.

    “But I never even contemplated taking her advice anyway. I did go home and discuss it with my parents, who have always been very encouraging and supportive, and they said, ‘If it’s what you really want to do, don’t even hesitate.’ ”

    Judd says she doesn’t feel vindicated.

    “It’s just disappointing that people aren’t encouraged to reach their full potential – and that’s what I’ve been talking about with women at the Bar and women more generally … you want to create opportunities so that those who have the skills to succeed will take up opportunities and keep pushing and keep striving.”

    When Ms Judd became a judge’s associate in 1989, there were no female Supreme Court judges nor QCs. Later that same year she was inspired to watch Susan Crennan (BA 1965, PGDipArts(Hist) 2002) (who would ultimately become a High Court Justice), and Ada Moshinsky (LLB 1964, LLM 1976) take silk. Now, she herself is the first woman to become Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions.

    As DPP, she is the head of Victoria’s public prosecutions service, which works on behalf of the Crown in serious criminal matters. An independent T H E L AW 17 statutory appointee, the DPP makes decisions on instituting, preparing and conducting prosecutions in matters including murder, major sex offences, drug trafficking, commercial crime and fraud, serious assaults, culpable driving, corruption, and serious occupational health and safety matters.

    “I am responsible for prosecuting indictable crime, so all serious crime,” explains Judd. “I make the decisions, ultimately, about what prosecutions should proceed or should not proceed. I make decisions about whether a sentence is appropriate or if it should be appealed, and there is a policy aspect to my role.”

    As for being the first female in the role, Judd says:

    “I would love to think that we’re getting to a point in time where appointing a woman to something like this is unremarkable, but I recognise that it is remarkable at the moment. So, I am very proud and I hope that I will be a role model.”

    A male bastion not all that many years ago, the glass ceiling in the law is now pretty much broken. The Office of Public Prosecutions has a lot more women solicitors and, at the Bar, there is “a lot more equality coming through in the numbers”.

    However, she adds: “In terms of retention and in terms of silks it is still very much male-dominated.”

    “The difficulty is, the women who get to those high positions get sucked out of the Bar and the profession by being appointed to the judiciary and to roles such as mine. Those are very important positions, but it does mean that the number of senior women left at the Bar is reduced. So, it’s important to keep the numbers coming [through].”

    In fact, Judd never intended becoming a barrister. She admits that, having arrived at law school, she hadn’t really thought it through. “I don’t think I thought about being a lawyer; it was more about learning about the law and the policy behind the law, those types of things.”

    She envisioned a future as a solicitor, but as an articled clerk came to resent what she saw as a focus on billing. “So, very early on, I wondered if I’d made the right decision,” she says.

    She took a three-year “time-out” as associate to Supreme Court Justices Ian Gray and William Crockett (LLB 1945, LLM 1948, LLD 1995), which gave her the opportunity to watch barristers in court. As well, she says, her judges – like most at the time, former barristers – dealt with her, without ever really asking, on the assumption that her path would naturally lead to the Bar. Pretty quickly, she realised they were right.

    “And I’ve loved every moment of it,” she says. “I enjoy the advocacy; I enjoy the variety of clients and the variety of work I’ve had over the years.

    “You feel an enormous responsibility when you’re acting on someone’s behalf because that’s their one day in court … essentially, your job is to advocate, within the law, their cause. And it is a great honour, great privilege and great responsibility.”

    But advocacy can come at a personal cost, not just in social or lifestyle terms, but at a deeper, sometimes damaging and emotional level, given the effort and single-mindedness of preparing and trying a case, and the exhaustion that often follows.

    Judd has appeared in trials and appeals involving some of Victoria’s most horrific and moving crimes, including the Akon Guode case, in which a mother killed three of her children by driving them into a lake, and the abduction, rape and murder of Bega school girls Lauren Barry and Nichole Collins.

    “You do take on board some of the horrific things,” she reflects. “It’s human nature to feel something and you’d never want to lose that capacity. But you don’t want to have the nightmare every night.”

    Sometimes they can’t be avoided. The Bega case still haunts her. Preparing for the appeal of one of the murderers, she read his graphic account of the lead up to the murder, the details of the killing and the girls’ last words.

    “I remember having this recurring nightmare, where I would see two girls in school uniforms,” she says. “I don’t know where I got this image from, it wasn’t one of the trial exhibits, but I would wake up in a sweat.” Car adverts, say of a vehicle winding through a forest – meant to evoke pleasant escapism – still give her a chill.

    But, Judd adds, the rewards far outweigh the costs. She has pioneered electronic trials, which involve showing evidence previously presented on paper on screens and on jurors’ tablets, making them more manageable and efficient. One of her goals in her new job is incorporating such innovation more widely. She would also like to see respect for victims.

    “But, really, I simply would like at the end of my tenure to be considered a director who has made sound legal decisions – appropriate decisions, prompt decisions.”