He has had a long connection with Universities, having served as a Fellow of the Senate of Sydney University, as Deputy Chancellor of the University of Newcastle and from 1984 to 1993 as Chancellor of Macquarie University. The University of Newcastle conferred on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters in 1987. The University of Sydney and Macquarie University conferred on him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws. In 1996 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. In 1997 the Bulletin magazine included him amongst Australia's "ten most creative minds". Also in 1997 the National Law School University of India conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws on him.
Justice Kirby practised as a solicitor and then as a barrister before his appointment in December 1974 as a Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. He is the youngest man appointed to Federal judicial office in Australia. He held that position until 1983 when he was appointed a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia. He relinquished that post upon his appointment in 1984 as President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal. In August 1995 he was appointed to the additional post of President of the Court of Appeal of Solomon Islands. He resigned these positions when, in February 1996 he was appointed one of the seven Justices of the High Court of Australia, Australia's Federal Supreme Court.
Between 1975 and 1984, Justice Kirby was foundation Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission. At the same time he served on numerous national bodies including the Administrative Review Council, the Australian Council of Multicultural Affairs and the Executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
Justice Kirby has held or holds numerous international posts. He has chaired two Committees of the OECD on Privacy and Data Security. He has taken an active part in UNESCO, at its General Conference and in specialised expert bodies studying the rights of peoples in international law. He served as a Member of the Global Commission on AIDS of the World Health Organisation. He has taken part in numerous judicial conferences of the Commonwealth Secretariat.
For the ILO he was part of a mission to South Africa in 1992-3 to examine that country's labour laws. In November 1993, he was appointed the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations on Human Rights for Cambodia - a position he held until April 1996. In February 1994 he was the Independent Chairman of the Constitutional Conference of Malawi. He returned there in 1997 for a Constitutional Symposium.
In March 1994, he was appointed by the Director-General of UNESCO to be a member of the International Jury for the UNESCO prize for the teaching of human rights. In 1995 he was appointed to the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Committee of the Human Genome Organisation now based in London: monitoring the largest cooperative scientific project in history. Also in 1995 he was appointed to the Editorial Committee of the Commonwealth of Association for Education in Journalism and Communication.
In 1996 he was appointed to the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO, Paris. He was also appointed in 1996 to the International Advisory Group on Advocacy Training of the Inns of Court School of Law in London and the International Council for Conflict Prevention of International Alert, London. In 1997 he took part in the preparation of a Judicial Training Manual on Human Rights being prepared by the UN Centre for Human Rights. He has been a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists since 1984. In 1995, he was elected ICJ President, a position he still holds.
Justice Kirby was created a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1983 and a Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest civil honour now awarded in Australia, in 1991. In 1991 he was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal.