Welcome ceremony for his Honour Justice Yaseen Shariff SC to the Federal Court of Australia

Callan O'Neill

It is customary to start these pieces by providing various biographical details about the subject: when they were born, who was there, what school they went to, their trajectory as a lawyer. All that detail has a certain quality of obituary about it, however apt that may be in some cases.

It is less apt in the case of the Honourable Justice Yaseen Shariff. He is too young for much of it for a start, but he is also too energetic. Being appointed in his prime as a barrister, it would be a sad obituary indeed. And while for the members of the 12th Floor and the Bar Council there is some sadness at his Honour departing so early in his career as a leading barrister, in truth this appointment is one that should be celebrated as boon for the wider Australian community.

Justice Shariff’s father, Muneer, was a computer scientist. A fundamental principle of computer science is that the work a computer performs is derived from the quantitative property of energy. Its performance is a function of both time and speed, which ideally are to be independent of the resource’s underlying characteristics in order that energy is efficiently consumed. This principle also describes the ‘science’ (perhaps even ‘art’) of modern juridical practice: just, quick and cheap – and don’t spare the barristers.

Fortunately, computational energy and intellect are things that his Honour possesses in spades. That energy manifested extensively (perhaps excessively) while his Honour was still here in chambers. His Honour would often be jumping about the place with the latest loss or triumph, extolling the iniquity or virtue of whatever it was that was captivating him at the time. I will return to the moniker ‘the Fox’ shortly, but at least in this paragraph it describes the very type of carry on set out above, like a fox jumping about the glade. That type of energy is infectious, and distracting, and wonderful. All things that will be missed from chambers and no doubt to be endured by his new colleagues at the bench.

The genesis of such energy is no doubt to be found in the bustling streets of what was then known as Madras, where his Honour was born. It was then Indira Gandhi’s India, in constant tension with itself. A postcolonial India that was struggling with its identity, attempting to free itself of its own traditions, scarred by old divisions and in danger of slipping into authoritarian rule. Madras, being in the coastal southeast, was a bustling centre of culture, food and art, geographically distant from the centres of struggle. But it no doubt contained its challenges. Both of Justice Shariff’s parents were tertiary educated. His mother, Neelofar, held a PhD in philosophy. Their home, not only a place of love, was also a place for thought and challenge. Challenge takes energy. Therefore, the genesis of his Honour’s energy may well have been a home in such a busy place with parents who challenged their children to keep up.

On 13 September 1985 the Shariffs moved to Australia. There were no doubt many reasons for this, but at its core that migrant story was like many others, a dream of a better life in another place. Young Master Shariff, fluent in at least two languages (Urdu and English), with some working knowledge of many others, required energy and application to adjust. At first underestimated because of his migrant status alone, in the leafy streets of Carlingford he made lifelong friends, and learned some vital lessons that he holds with him now. He also handed out some lessons to his Australian contemporaries.

One of those lessons was that not everything is as at seems on first impression. As his junior on occasion, I observed that this would manifest as a persistent and nagging obsession with getting into the real motivations for human behaviour, whether it be in industrial law, corruption, or even simply straight mercantile endeavour. The ‘why’ mattered to his Honour to explain the ‘what’. And I was often amazed at how the obsessive unpicking at the ‘why’ often led to an elegant understanding of ‘what’; a Brechtian key to the behaviour of a case’s protagonists. If there is a lesson that I will take away from being his junior, apart from how to sneak lollies at the bar table and supress giggles, it is that in order to understand something it is necessary to attempt to shed (as best as any human can) the cognitive preconditions that cloud a better understanding. It is a philosophy that bespeaks of juristic quality, and indeed why judges should be chosen from diverse backgrounds and understandings. It is also a quality driven into a young Muslim migrant student, on more than one occasion unfairly, more so than others.

His Honour’s work ethic was appropriately lauded at his welcome. It was well known that just like his tutors, Justice Bromwich and Arthur Moses SC, Justice Shariff was somewhat tireless. This meant that his Honour could seamlessly practise across a number of areas of law, whether their coherence was immediately obvious to others or not. Again, this is another philosophy that bespeaks of juristic quality. And also one that was utilised outside of simply his practice, but also on the many dedicated years his Honour served on the Bar Council including during the pandemic and when the Me Too movement began to hold a mirror to matters that had been hidden for far too long.

His Honour has an amazing capacity for generosity and fun. He is kept young by his family, Gabriel and Camilla, upon whom he dotes and loves dearly. He has closely held friends from school, his life in the law and the Bar. He is an avid sports fan, and in particular the sports of the pax Australiana – cricket and rugby league. It is no secret that he is a devout Wests Tigers fan, despite that club’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory so often that it even sought his advice to effect a post-final whistle result reversal, which of course is actually an impossibility as the referee in that game – like a judge – remains the sole arbiter of fact and law.

His Honour’s sense of humour is revealed in the self-proclaimed epitaph ‘the Fox’. The name was first used by a plaintiff, a former professor in physics, speaking outside Court after being cross-examined by his Honour in Ridd v James Cook University. The case, on its face a dismissal case concerning intellectual freedoms, also touched upon the topic of intellectual rigour. Mr Ridd stated:

When Shariff got up to grill me, he made a small smile that reminded me of a fox about to trap a rabbit. I have been told that Shariff is a perfect gentleman, but at that moment he had a job to do. It was to challenge me, not to be nice to me. I watched and thought, ‘If only this guaranteed questioning of evidence occurred in the environmental sciences.’ We need the scientific equivalent of Shariff.

Well from that moment his Honour was besotted, with himself that is, requiring all to now adopt the nickname or be denied an audience. As amusing the 18,000th time as it was on the first…

Perhaps more amusing was the recent visitation to his Honour’s residence during the early morning hours of an actual fox. His Honour was now terrified and alone confronting the embodiment of his moniker. His Honour’s small smile was fast abandoned as he sent the equivalent of a digital damsel’s distress signal for rescue as the real fox stalked its judicial prey.

There will of course always remain unanswered questions. Why his Honour persists with sending clips of his band (the Carlo Dad Bods) to select persons via WhatsApp (Callan has left the group again…), is perhaps more a universal mystery than a human one. As is the genre of the said band, mangling the very worst of the 70s, 80s and 90s. I had never thought it possible that a Nickelback cover could actually sound worse than the original. As Justice Edelman would say ‘wrong’.

But those mysteries should not detract from the things that are known, namely that the Federal Court has found in Justice Shariff a hardworking, energetic and curious lawyer whose background and experience, varied as it is from what was once the norm, is destined to manifest into a fine jurist. The floor and the Bar Council will miss his input greatly. However, the Court, and the community will be well served. BN

Callan O'Neill

12 Wentworth Selborne Chambers