Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Marilyn Warren has embraced social media as a means of reaching out to the wider community.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Marilyn Warren has embraced social media as a means of reaching out to the wider community. Photo: Angela Wylie

Underneath the magnificent dome of the Supreme Court library hang the portraits of Victoria's chief justices. Ten are traditional, stately works; the 11th and most recent addition is the exception.

The portrait of Marilyn Warren by Archibald People's Choice winner Vincent Fantauzzo stands apart from its sober companions. He has depicted her standing tall against a light-filled background, a striking figure in her black judicial robes, her eyes fixed directly at the viewer. It is undoubtedly a portrait of quiet assertiveness.

That the tone of the work is different to those of her predecessors should not surprise. When The Age reported her appointment a decade ago, we called her a trailblazer. And indeed, she was, as the first woman to become Chief Justice in Victoria, or to occupy a similar position anywhere in Australia. Her appointment by then Labor attorney-general Rob Hulls was a big stride forward for equality in the legal profession, and for that matter, society as a whole. But even then, the new chief justice was acutely aware of what counted.

The portrait of Marilyn Warren by Archibald People's Choice winner Vincent Fantauzzo.

The portrait of Marilyn Warren by Archibald People's Choice winner Vincent Fantauzzo.

''It is the performance that is important,'' she told us then. ''Not that I perform well as a woman, or I perform well as against a man - I perform well as a judge, that's the point.''

Last month, the Chief Justice marked 10 years in the job. As for performance, she has emerged as a powerful advocate for the Supreme Court and the judiciary. And while she rightly declared that performance is what would matter, Marilyn Warren can today look back on what it meant to be, for want of a better term, a trailblazer for her gender.

''On reflection, it was a burden,'' she says. ''I was very conscious that if I made a bad mistake then those who wanted to be critical would really focus on that. But in these sorts of roles you have to take a deep breath and back your judgment. So that was what I did.

''I took the view that I had been chosen, it was my responsibility, I was obliged to do the best that I could. There would be times that I would disappoint many, and there would be times where I would please many. So I did the best I could and that's what I aspired to, constantly.''

Marilyn Warren has agreed to an interview with The Age to reflect on a milestone. Since taking that deep breath and backing her judgment, those 10 years, she says, have gone in a flash. ''I simply can't believe that 10 years of my life have gone in that period. However, when I reflect on all the things that we have done, of course, it's taken 10 years.''

Before she was appointed, she had the ''great advantage'' of having been at the court for five years. ''I knew the things that needed to change, the advances that needed to be made. When I started there was a great sense of anticipation and expectation by my colleagues, and I suspect also from the legal community,'' she says.

''The court had been here for a long time. I sensed a strong desire that things could be done differently. There is an enormous amount of pride in the institution of the Supreme Court of Victoria, and I had a strong sense that people wanted to have that level of pride expanded and developed.''

So the changes have come, both the big and the barely noticeable, but nevertheless important. An example of the latter came after she noticed people sitting around in a drafty corridor, looking nervous while they waited to give evidence in a criminal trial.

''Sometimes they're left out there in a corridor for a long time,'' she says. ''So I spoke to staff and we installed some soft classical music. I'm told by some who do sit there it's very calming and soothing.''

The same thinking was behind changes made a few years ago during a refurbishment, when a courtyard used as a judges' car park was turned into a plaza. It has become a sanctuary where witnesses can retreat, or lawyers can talk.

In part, that approach has stemmed from a project the court runs each year with final year architecture students, who imagine what a new court could be, with their no-budget designs put on public display. (It's a clever strategy for a court that needs new accommodation - design it, and they will hopefully build it.)

But the students' work also involves the judges of the court reflecting on their place in the community - something the students have explored as part of the creative process.

What emerged was the significance of community trust in the courts: a strong sense of protection; confidence in the integrity, independence and honesty of judges to deliver justice to protect the community; and the rule of law.

''As a judge, you're doing your work, day in, day out, you might sometimes not focus on the special perspective of what justice means, how it should be represented, and how it should be demonstrated to the community,'' she says.

The 19th century court on William Street was designed to intimidate the community. ''People were not intended to feel welcomed. Well, it's the complete opposite with justice today.''

This involves embracing social media. The Chief Justice talked to her fellow judges and called in the experts. With print media in decline, the advice was that if the court wanted to reach out to the community, the avenue was electronic media, including social media. Apart from updating its website, the court is now on Facebook and Twitter. There are plans for a retired judge to blog.

''To your average member of the community, particularly young people, that's not adventurous,'' she says. ''But for an institution like a Supreme Court, it is radical, certainly in Australia.''

In part, it reflects the digital natives now in the legal profession. But it is also about speaking to younger members of the community. ''We, in our sentencing, often talk about deterrence,'' says the Chief Justice.

''There's a whole young group out there we don't communicate with unless we use the social media. So, for example, it was said in a case that 'glassing' means jail. The judge who said that wanted to get the message out to young men that if they engage in these kinds of assaults, they are at serious risk of being placed in custody.

''We can say that as much as we like in the printed media and even on our website. But the ones we want to reach are not going to receive that message.''

There is, of course, the danger of social media getting it wrong. Marilyn Warren used the 2013 Redmond Barry lecture to outline the court's social media plans. She cited the Court of Appeal's hearing of the appeal of Adrian Bayley against his sentence for the rape and murder of Jill Meagher.

When the Court of Appeal announced its decision, Twitter posts stated that the court had dismissed the appeal after only 10 minutes of deliberation. ''These posts were misleading and misrepresented the thorough, considered and objective nature of the judicial process,'' she said in the lecture. In fact, the court's decision was based on material filed beforehand, discussion by the court members in the days before, and hearing argument from counsel on both sides over some time.

But she believes that despite the possibility of things being misconstrued, it is worth it on balance. ''If you sit back and worry all the time only about the risks, you'll never change anything.''

Social media are also places where everyone has an opinion - and the courts and their decisions are no exception. But things have changed. ''Certainly, 20 or so years ago there was not the questioning of authority to the level that there is now,'' she says ''Institutions such as the judiciary were accepted. I think it is a factor we must accept and get on with what we have to do.

'The individuals who are the judges are not the same people who constituted the court 20 or more years ago. They are the modern individuals of our current generation. We are very much part of the community and are influenced by the community.

''We are parents, we have children, we understand technology, we have friends who, one way or another, will tell us if they know of a decision and whether they agree with it. Discussions are very lively. We now embrace it as part of modern judicial life.''

The Supreme Court in the Warren era has also seen fundamental changes in the way the court operates, expanding into hearing class actions such as the case involving the Kilmore East bushfires, being heard in a purpose-built, state-of-the-art courtroom.

One of the biggest reforms relates to the way the courts are funded. And Marilyn Warren was an outspoken critic of the Department of Justice controlling funding. The Coalition government has followed through on an election promise to establish a courts executive service. Legislation now before Parliament will set up the body that will mean the courts are fully responsible and accountable for their budgets, separate from the state.

''It is of such legal and constitutional significance in Victoria's history, it cannot be overstated,'' she says.

The change of government in Victoria in 2010 has also seen the introduction of a tough law and order agenda. Cases coming through other courts have increased. The primary reason, says the Chief Justice, seems to be the increase in police numbers, and the targeting of domestic violence.

''They come into the system, they have to be dealt with,'' she says. ''The decision to increase the numbers of police is quite understandable for a government to make. The point I've endeavoured to make in discussions is that it's undesirable to make a one-off decision about a single facet of the criminal justice system. The decision has to be looked at across the whole system and an analysis done of the forecast consequences.''

The overcrowding of prisons is one such consequence. Judges have to take into account the rehabilitation of a person when sending them to prison, and there is an expectation that there will be appropriate facilities. ''It may be that lawyers will start to argue before magistrates and judges that individual sentences should take account … that the opportunities for rehabilitation in prison are reduced by virtue of the fact that the numbers of prisoners has increased, and the demand on the resources has become unreasonable,'' she says.

The past year has also revealed a source of deep tension between the government and the court. The role of the Adult Parole Board, which has been headed by a Supreme Court judge, has been severely criticised over a series of high-profile murders committed by parolees. The chairmen have been Justice Simon Whelan, followed by Justice Elizabeth Curtain.

On this issue, the Chief Justice makes the strongest comments of our interview. ''I thought the treatment of the former chairman Justice Whelan and the current chairman Justice Curtain was quite disgraceful,'' she says.

Chairing the board was over and above their judicial workload. They relied on advice from the staff of the board, and the office of corrections.

''The chairs, together with all the members of the Adult Parole Board - which includes retired judges - are very experienced people doing their very best on the basis of the information that they have.''

Pushed further, Marilyn Warren includes the media in her criticisms, and more contentiously, individuals in the government.

''The media were often selective in the information that was provided to the community. Whether that was deliberate or not, I don't know,'' she says. ''There was information that could have been provided by government, in particular the Office of Corrections. They did not.

''My strong sense at the time was that the Adult Parole Board and its chairs were hung out to dry. Given the significance of their role and their very earnest commitment to serving the community, it was very disappointing.

''There were occasions when questions were asked of individuals whether there was confidence in the Adult Parole Board, and the question was either ignored or else answered in the negative.''

The Chief Justice declines to name the individuals, but Premier Denis Napthine was repeatedly asked if he had confidence in the board, and answered by saying it had a very difficult job.

Under the overhaul of the parole system, the Supreme Court will no longer provide a chairman for the board. The judges, she says, had the strong view that the time had come for them to step out of the role.

The burden of work was one reason. The second was the risk to the judicial office because of treatment in the media. At the height of the controversy, Justice Whelan made unprecedented public comments (with the support of the Chief Justice).

From her position, Marilyn Warren has a unique vantage point on our progress or otherwise as a society. ''I think we are a fairer society from my perspective as a judge,'' she says. ''There is much heightened awareness about human rights, legal rights, knowledge about the law, the opportunities to prosecute rights.''

There's been a change in the types of cases the court hears: environmental law, class actions about bushfires, the rights of investors. ''So there is, I believe, a strong sense in the community that if a wrong is perpetrated against an individual by another or by the state there is an avenue for redress.''

Shane Green is an associate editor of The Age.