Michael Kirby was born and educated in Sydney. He gained four degrees from the University of Sydney, including Master of Laws with First Class Honours. He has been awarded 30 honorary degrees from universities in Australia and overseas. He teaches, as an Honorary Professor in 12 universities.
He worked in a legal firm in Sydney and then at the Bar until, at the age of 35, he was appointed to federal judicial office. He was inaugural chair of the Australian Law Reform Commission (1975-84); Judge of the Federal Court of Australia (1983- 84); Judge and President of the NSW Court of Appeal (1984-96); and Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996-2009).
During these years he took part in many activities concerned with human rights and was President of the International Commission of Jurists (Geneva) (1995-8). Following his retirement from judicial office he took part as Special Representative of the United Nations for Cambodia (1993-6) and Chair of the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association (2018-22). In 2013-14 he chaired the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations in North Korea.
A special facet of his career has been his work in relation to digital society. Between 1978-80 he was chair of the UN Expert Group on Transborder Data Flows and the Protection of Privacy. Thereafter in 1992-3, he chaired the OECD Expert Group on Data Security. Drawing on this work in the Law Reform Commission, he presided over the preparation of the Commission’s report on the protection of privacy in Australia. This led to the Privacy Act 1988, which drew on the OECD principles.
In 1990 he was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal; and in 2008 was awarded the inaugural Australian Privacy Medal. Since 2022, he has been Patron of Cybermindz. This is a body that addresses the impact of work in the cyber world on technical and other staff and coping with the stress and pressure of modern life.
In recent years Michael Kirby has become more involved in equality and law reform for LGBTIQ people in Australia and the world.
On 11 February 2024, he celebrated the 55th anniversary of his relationship with is partner, now spouse, Johan van Vloten.