What makes a Justice tick? Family Court of Australia Justice Colin Forrest shares his tips on working in the expertise of family law.

Justice Forrest (right, aged 27
with Justice Michael Kirby)
on the day he was admitted
to the New South Wales Bar.

An eminent career spanning more than 35 years as barrister, silk and then judge was just what the young Colin Forrest envisaged as a Tamworth schoolboy.

He just didn’t imagine that career would be in family law.

Justice Forrest moved to Brisbane in the late 1980s, intent on establishing a career as a barrister working in industrial relations. However, fate had something different in store.

“When I came to work in Brisbane I went to work for a firm that initially I thought would expose me to employment law. But the partner I worked for—Peter Carne, a well-known Brisbane lawyer who is now the Public Trustee—had a very busy, successful family law practice and I started doing family law. And I started enjoying it and thought I was OK at it,” Justice Forrest said.

Justice Forrest counts 2010 as a year of personal highlights—he was appointed Senior Counsel then appointed to the Family Court of Australia that same year… and also ran his first three marathons.

The keen athlete—who has been Queensland triathlon champion in his age group, trains daily and commutes to work each day by bicycle—says sport has boosted his career.

“I've found that being as physically active as I have been has really helped me stay more focused at work and has helped me deal with the natural stresses that go with this job. And I can give a good example. Before I started regularly training hard, I used to get a lot of stress headaches; since I started doing physical activity I've never had a stress headache. And I can only attribute that to being healthier and fitter and more active—and 10kgs lighter.”

Justice Forrest says that stress is a significant issue for jurists in the Family Court where matters are “complex and difficult and the most troublesome—especially the parenting cases”.

“I hear a lot of cases that involve allegations of physical and sexual abuse and [have] to determine parenting orders in the context of those allegations being made. It's very stressful and the court acknowledges that and we are constantly encouraged to seek assistance if we need it,” he said.

He says, however, that family law offers a career that is challenging and extremely rewarding—so long as you have a compassionate and empathetic personality.

“Having never had initially the ambition of being a family lawyer but having been drawn into it, I can say family law is a very rewarding area of law.

“You need to appreciate that often people going through relationship breakdowns are experiencing the worst and sometimes that brings out the worst in them,” Justice Forrest said.

Justice Colin Forrest Gold Coast marathonJustice Forrest finishing a recent
Gold Coast Marathon.

“You've got to be able to work with that and help them deal with that and turn that into more positive outcomes, particularly when there are children involved.

“To some extent I consider that family lawyers are maligned and misunderstood by the public and the media and other lawyers.

“I have nothing but admiration for most family lawyers and the work that they do helping ordinary Australians deal with what is often the most traumatic and difficult time in their life, helping them put the pieces back together,” he said.

Eight years on the Family Court has seen Justice Forrest preside over many high-profile cases, but there is one particular standout.

“Perhaps the most significant case I remember is the Italian sisters’ case—that's what I call it,” Justice Forrest said.

“It was a difficult case and it sticks in my memory because of all of the publicity that occurred around it. It was a very troubling and difficult case and made even harder because there was so much public interest and media interest in it at the time,” he said.

He says media attention on the judiciary is a good thing, with the spotlight a keen reminder that everything said in court is open to public scrutiny.

“Unless a judge of the Family Court closes the court for a particular reason, the court is always open and public. One of the cornerstones of our judicial system and the administration of justice in our system that we've inherited from the British is that justice is dispensed by courts under the glare of the public eye,” he said.

He says for him personally, being a jurist comes with great responsibility.

“We're helping resolve the disputes of ordinary, everyday Australians and we do that en masse in this court,” he said.

“I appreciate the responsibility imposed upon me to help people who are otherwise unable to resolve their difficulties surrounding their relationship breakdowns.

“People often say they're looking for closure. It's important and rewarding to be able to help those people when they apparently can't help themselves."

"For anyone who's got the right personality traits, and is keen and ambitious and willing to work hard, family law is indeed a challenging but extremely rewarding and satisfying area of law to work in."