Judge Ruth McColl of Banco Courtroom

Trailblazing judge Ruth McColl says 'there is still work to be done' to reach 'true equality'

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Justice Ruth McColl says she is thankful NSW has increased the retirement age for judges from 72 to 75.

One of the nation's more significant legal figures over the past 30 years – and an appeal judge for the past 15 – said her goodbyes at a ceremonial sitting of the NSW Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Justice McColl, who will leave office in late January, said she would move into the next phase of her professional life with increased confidence.

Justice Ruth McColl at her farewell in the Banco Court on Tuesday. "There is still work to be done by strong men and women toward the goal of true equality," she said. Peter Braig

"When I informed the chief justice in July that I intended to retire, I was leaving only four years before the statutory retirement age – but now it's seven years.

"Increasing the retirement age, on any textual analysis … gives me a bit of faith about my durability for the next chapter of my life."

The change went through Parliament last week and follows an earlier increase in the retirement age for acting judges to 78. Federal judges must retire at 70 under the constitution and the other states have set 70 or 72 as the age limit for full-time judges.

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The Supreme Court's judges were in full ceremonial dress – the federal courts are a robe-only zone – for the event, during which Justice McColl was lauded as "a trailblazer for women in the legal profession".

'Role model'

Chief Justice Tom Bathurst said she had been "a role model for many talented women".

"You can't be what you can't see," he said.

When she went to the bar in 1980, Justice McColl was one of 20 women among 750 barristers.

She made silk in 1994 and was the first woman president of the NSW Bar Association (1999-2001). In that role she won plaudits for handling the mess created by tax-dodging barristers.

Justice McColl later served as president of the Australian Bar Association (2001-2002). She was also a founder and vice-president of Australian Women Lawyers (1996–99) and President of NSW Women Lawyers (1996-1997).

She was a leading commercial and defamation silk before she joined the bench in April 2003. She was only the second woman to be appointed to the NSW Court of Appeal – the state's top court – after the court's current president, Justice Margaret Beazley.

Justice McColl noted 2018 marked 100 years since the passing of Women's Status Act, which gave women the right to practise as lawyers in NSW. Previously women were not treated as "persons", which meant they could study law but never be admitted to the profession.

"That anniversary was a reminder of the struggle," she said.

'Work to be done'

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The judge lauded pioneers such as Ada Evans (the first woman barrister in NSW), Mary Gaudron (the first High Court judge) and Jane Mathews (the first judge of the NSW Supreme Court), saying those who followed had help build on their "inverted iceberg".

Women now represent about 60 per cent of law students and more than half the profession, though only 25 per cent of barristers.

"The fact is, there is still work to be done by strong men and women toward the goal of true equality," she said.

She also mentioned there were only five Indigenous barristers at the NSW Bar: "This too must change."

Justice McColl said her farewell was more poignant for the fact it was 46 years, to the day, since she started her first job as a lawyer in the NSW Crown Solicitor's Office. The other newbie – Peter Johnson – was on the bench on Tuesday.

There was no mention of her nickname – the rather obvious "Ruthless" – but the NSW Bar Association president Tim Game, SC, prompted mirth with a suggestion that a Fairfax media photo taken in 2010 was "a unique shot of Ruth McColl laughing".

"Did I see a laugh today?" he ventured as McColl relaxed into a grin. "Maybe a flicker."

Chief Justice Bathurst said she was "direct but kind" with her staff and recounted an occasion when one of them disposed of the wrong flowers.

"For Christmas some months later, he received a reference book on flowers."By Michael Pelly

Updated 04 Dec 2018 — 4:23 PM, first published at 3:30 PM