'Courageous' & 'compassionate': Former judge Jane Mathews dies

‘Adored’, ‘courageous’ & ‘compassionate’: Former judge Jane Mathews dies

Jane Mathews
Neither pioneer nor trailblazer seem entirely sufficient labels for former barrister and judge Jane Mathews AO who passed away on Saturday at age 78.

In the public tributes that have flowed since news of her passing she has been remembered as courageous, compassionate, ‘a giant’, deeply respected, loved, admired and remarkable.

The NSW Bar Association noted in its tribute: “The career of Jane Mathews was pioneering in the true sense of the word, marked as it was by a string of ‘firsts’.”

In 1977 the Wollongong-born lawyer became the state’s first female Crown prosecutor, after practising at the New South Wales Bar since June 1969.

In 1980, at age 39, she was appointed to the District Court, becoming the first woman judge in New South Wales.

She told Bar News how the appointment came about.

“It was a complete surprise. The call came from Frank Walker, the NSW attorney general. I’d been on the Bar Council and had got to know him. He rang and said, ‘I want to appoint you to the District Court and if you say ‘no’, I’ll thump you.’ So, of course I didn’t say ‘no’.”

In 1987 she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

She went to the Federal Court of Australia in 1994 and went on to serve as president of the AAT and then deputy-president of the Native Title Tribunal.

In 2005 Jane was made an officer in the Order of Australia for ‘service to the judiciary, to the legal profession, to the University of New South Wales, and to music’.

In a speech to honour Jane Mathews, delivered in June of 2018, the NSW Governor Margaret Beazley described her as “a hero of the legal profession” who almost ‘singlehandedly changed the face of the NSW judiciary with her championing of women’.

“Because, as the person in NSW who has perhaps most tipped the scales of justice, she opened the way for women to more easily to take their place in the legal profession, including on the bench,” Beazley said. “As she said at her swearing in as a Supreme Court judge, she hoped that the significance of her appointment as the first woman judge of the NSW Supreme Court, after 27 years of an already full and trail blazing legal career, went beyond her and attached to women practitioners generally.”

Beazley also spoke about how Jane ‘again single handedly’ established the Australian Association of Women Judges, serving as its President from 2001 to 2006.

In 2004 Jane became President of the International Association of Women Judges.

“This is an association that has over 5000 members and was formed at a time when women were outliers, both in the profession and in the judiciary. It could be a lonely place and, unless you have experienced it, it is not necessarily easy to appreciate how isolating it can be to be flying solo all the time. There is a wonderful expression “peer deprivation” used to describe this experience and the Association of Women Judges filled a huge need at the time.”

Jane Mathews boarded at the Frensham School in Mittagong until she completed the leaving certificate and was only one of two girls who then attended university.

In an interview with Bar News in 2015 she spoke about being appointed to the Royal Commission on Human Relationships between 1974–76, a brief she received because ‘she was a woman’.

“The royal commission arose partly out of an abortion debate in the Australian Parliament. We dealt with all aspects of societal issues and I did the chapter in the final report relating to sexual offences. It was a huge eye opener for me and I realised just how much the legal processes victimised women who had been brave enough to report sexual offences.”

Extraordinary to think that in the year 2019 this is still an issue being fought.

Jane Mathews was a woman ahead of her times. Vale.

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