Chris Kourakis: right place, right time

A strong sense of social awareness and a hard work-ethic from growing up on his parents’ farm gives Chief Justice Chris Kourakis a more informal approach to the top legal job

“Lawyers and judges should realise the purpose of the law is to make society function more effectively,” Chief Justice Chris Kourakis says pragmatically.

“We are there to make the wheels of the economy and society operate more smoothly and not come up with fancy legal things.” South Australia’s first Greek Australian Chief Justice is practical, straight to the point, doesn’t suffer fools and brings a personable approach to the stiff legal world.

In another world to his predecessors, Kourakis is open; as open as his collar with no tie, and he wants law in South Australia to be as accessible and approachable as he is.

“My style is much more informal and more collaborative,” says the Chief Justice, adding “formality has been a large part of the way things have been done in the past” and is making it his job to instigate change.

Kourakis was bred with a distinct sense of social justice, an awareness that has ensured his legal dealings have been influenced by this trait. From the early cases he chose to take as a lawyer – many being pro-bono with little to no chance of winning – to his current goal of making courts accessible to everyone, the Chief Justice is loosening the formalities and making legal procedures easy for all to understand.

“People not having access to justice has a more insidious affect, people start to lose confidence in their social and business dealings because they are worried if something does go wrong, the law won’t provide the redress that it should. “People become more cautious and won’t take the business risk to do a dealing, won’t take a social risk in terms of being worried that the law is not strong enough … and that means society is all the worse and people don’t have the confidence to do what they would otherwise do to contribute and take part in society.”

The Chief Justice sees law as an important piece of “social superstructure”. Just as we need health, education and infrastructure in society, we also need the law. The difference being, we can’t see it as visibly as the others. The law is what makes society work day-to-day, abiding by the law makes us ‘good citizens’ and being lawful people is what protects us from others. Lose faith in this – the very foundation of society – and we are lost.

Born to Greek migrants, Kourakis grew up in the rural South Australian town of Port Lincoln as one of ten children. “From my mother, I developed a social awareness perspective because of her political leanings and her involvement in the Communist Party in Greece. My father was a very stable influence; a serious man with a sense of humour outside of work, but a serious approach to his work.”

Then there were his siblings – another nine children with six considerably older than himself, showing him the way of contemporary Australia, as well as his older cousins in the big smoke of Adelaide who were involved in the social changes affecting Australia in the ’60s and ’70s. “These were fairly tumultuous times – it was the time of the Vietnam War, the time of alternative cultural thinking; it was a non-conformist time,” he says. “I was influenced by a lot of those ideas coming out of that time – even though I was relatively young.” He had the best of both worlds.

Growing up in a migrant family influenced by Greek culture but at the same time exposed to contemporary Australia. “I see my youth growing up in Port Lincoln as one of the big advantages I have, I can consider coming from a diverse cultural background to be a big advantage because it opens your eyes to the differences in people, you become a bit of a sociologist and understanding people is really an important part of being a good lawyer and a good judge.” His career to date, he says, is down to luck and being in the right place at the right time.

At university, he nearly chose sciences over law, but a solid interest in debating and social issues were the deciding factors for the young Kourakis. After graduating, he says he was fortunate enough to be balloted to do his articles with the firm Johnston Withers McCusker. There he worked under Elliot Johnston who would become one of the biggest influences on the young lawyer, and still is today. From early on, he had a strong social justice perspective and became well-known for this in the legal profession.

The cases he took, and the reduced rates and pro bono work he offered, he says played a large part in developing his skills, stretching him and improving his work as a lawyer. It was those cases that also put him in full view of the judges and led to the advancement of his career. The father of three was appointed Chief Justice in June this year and says although the past five months have been challenging, he’s confident he will be there for a long time to slowly work the reforms he believes today’s legal system needs.

One is to see the introduction of more information technology in the courts to make things quicker, cheaper and more efficient. The second is to repair and improve the buildings of South Australia’s Supreme and Districts courts. And thirdly, the formation of an executive committee to oversee, research and provide new ideas to make law more accessible. “I think it’s in the nature of the legal profession that most lawyers and most judges have a social conscience and are aware of the disadvantages that many people suffer, and are keen to ensure that people like that are dealt fairly, but equally judges are aware that there are limits,” says Kourakis.

“Judges are generally fairly open-minded, we are trained to be open-minded; and generally that works. “Our job in the end is to administer the law … you have to be clinical when you are applying the law,” he explains. “It’s important that the law is predictable, consistent and coherent.”

Chief Justice Kourakis tends to put more importance on the application of legal rules rather than the flexibility of the law. This way, people to an extent know with some certainty what the law is and they can order their affairs around it. “In the end, judges have to make a judgement and someone is going to win and someone will lose, someone was right and someone was wrong and that’s the basis of it.”