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Welcome Judge Wendy Wilmoth


Cite as: (2003) 77(6) LIJ, p.35

Recently appointed County Court Judge Wendy Wilmoth was welcomed to the County Court at a ceremony on 14 April 2003. Among the speakers was Law Institute president Bill O’Shea. An edited version of his speech follows.

On behalf of the Law Institute and the solicitors of Victoria, I have much pleasure in welcoming your Honour to this honourable Court. It is especially gratifying that we welcome your Honour as a solicitor judge, in the grand tradition of other solicitors who have gone to the Bench.

Your Honour is a leader in a generation of pioneers in the Victorian legal community. The progress of your professional career quite neatly parallels the advancing role of women in the practice of law at all levels in our society.

Your elevation is celebrated because you bring to the Bench such an impressive range of qualities and experience. As well, you have ably demonstrated over many decades – and in many roles – the kind of intellect, acute legal mind, common sense and temperament that will be true assets on the Bench.

When you were appointed as a magistrate in 1988, you were one of only seven female magistrates out of 80, representing not even 10 per cent. That number has more than tripled since then.

From time to time, you have experienced the less than enlightened views of some of those at the Bar table. In 1999, defence counsel repeatedly referred to your Honour as “sir”. While you graciously let this slide, the opposing counsel, a female police prosecutor, was less tolerant and objected.

“Your Worship,” she said, “I must object to defence counsel repeatedly calling you ‘sir’.”

The defence counsel stood to respond.

“I’m terribly sorry, your Worship,” he began, his mind racing for an excuse that might wash with the Court. “I just can’t get used to women on the Bench.”

In 1974, the Law Institute Journal often published job advertisements that explicitly precluded women from applying. Along with a colleague, your Honour wrote to the Journal, justifiably criticising this practice.

Your letter caused a minor controversy, with a letter writer in the subsequent edition defending the practice and dismissing the complaint as the work of disgruntled “petticoated articled clerks”. The Journal later that year announced it would no longer accept discriminatory advertising of that kind.

You have been involved in a number of important cases through your years on the Bench, including several long and complex committals.

In 1991, as deputy state coroner, you conducted a lengthy hearing into the death at the Children’s Hospital of a newborn baby, known as Baby “M”, where issues relating to the palliative care of a seriously disabled infant were canvassed in a controversial, high-profile case.

Your Honour concluded that the drug treatment by the hospital to relieve the baby’s acute suffering – even though there was a serious risk of the baby’s death – was appropriate.

You also presided as coroner over hearings into a number of backyard swimming pool deaths, and your findings – and others – eventually led to the introduction of mandatory pool fencing in this state, a measure that has undoubtedly saved many children’s lives.

Your commitment while a magistrate to the welfare of children and young people was well known. We at the Law Institute have appreciated your wise counsel on the issues relating to children and young people in this state and how policies could be developed to improve their lot in society.

You met your husband Mike, fittingly, on the steps of the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in 1971, during the Vietnam War. You and Mike were at the Court in support of a mutual friend who was attending a hearing in relation to his status as a conscientious objector.

Romance blossomed – but might not have had Mike let on that he was a passionate Essendon supporter. Your Honour is not known for your love of sport, but it appears that you reserve a special distaste for football. You seem to be of the view that football’s only contribution to Melbourne is to its traffic problems.

Much has rightly been made of your Honour’s family’s remarkable contribution to the law in Victoria over generations.

But when looking for influences on your personal and professional life, it is difficult to look past your maternal grandmother, Elsie Southwell.

Elsie Southwell was a woman decades ahead of her time. In 1950, she published a book, Food, Soil and Civilisation, that dealt with the environmental threats facing Australia – soil erosion, salinity, the dangers of over-logging – in an era where these issues barely, if ever, saw the light of day.

In 1950 she wrote: “A sense of the whole is the mark of a sound mind.”

If a sense of the whole is defined by a seemingly effortless ability to successfully juggle numerous roles, in your work life, as wife to Mike, as a mother to three very proud children, as a daughter, big sister and aunt, then your Honour most surely has the soundest of minds.

On behalf of the Institute and the solicitors of Victoria, I wish you a long and fulfilling career as a judge of this honourable Court.


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