Jane Needham
Monday, June 2, 2014
Justinian in Jane Needham SC, NSW Bar Association, On the Couch

Meet the new president of the NSW Bar ... Jane Needham SC on Justinian's couch ... Analysis ... Confessions ... Kosher mayonaisse ... Songs about love-gone-wrong ... Last meal 

Jane Needham: a terrifying calender

Jane Needham SC completed a degree in Mediaeval English and Linguistics at UNSW before undertaking her LLB at UTS, where she studied part-time while working as an associate to her father, Justice Denys Needham of the NSW Supremes.

She went straight to the bar in 1990, and has had three career breaks over the past 24 years.

She was appointed silk in 2004 after two years of part-time practice.

Jane has served on the bar council and various committees since 1993, and on the Law Council Acccess to Justice Committee and on various community and charitable organisations.

She was a member, and later a deputy president, of the Administrative Decisions Tribunal.

Her areas of practice include equity, succession, real property and administrative law, and she is currently representing the Council for Truth, Justice and Healing and the Catholic Education Office at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Assault.

She is married with three children ... and here she is.  

Describe yourself in three words.

Lawyer, mother, tired.

What are you currently reading? 

I'm re-reading "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies", about Thomas Cromwell, to prepare myself for the intrigues of power.

What's your favourite film?

Most of my film-watching is child-friendly, or fluff, and I'd be far too embarrassed to list any of them. I do love Coen Brothers comedies though – particularly "O Brother Where Art Thou", and "Burn After Reading", as well as "Intolerable Cruelty". I think I can confess to those in public. 

Who has been the most influential person in your life? 

My daughter, who is 12. She forces me to think critically about my beliefs and values and to explain them to her. "Because I said so," doesn't wash. I need to re-evaluate myself and my beliefs continuously. That process has made me a more reflective person. It has also meant that I have read "The Hunger Games" trilogy and listened to bands like "The Cat Empire" on the "do not criticise that which you do not know" principle.

What is your favourite piece of music?

If  I were being fancy I'd say Bach's "Partita" in A Minor for Flute, which I do honestly love to bits. But, if I were to be honest, it's whatever fits my mood. I am currently in the mood, rather strangely given my happily married state, for love-gone-wrong songs - "Valentine's Day is Over" by Billy Bragg, "Indoor Fireworks" by Elvis Costello, and "Not Pretty Enough" by Kasey Chambers. 

What is in your refrigerator? 

Lots of school-lunch making items like wraps and sliced cheese, lots of fresh vegetables, and some leftover Moroccan lamb shank and chickpea soup. One lonely Lindt bunny left over from Easter, uneaten because it belongs to my daughter who has more restraint than I do. Lots of condiments. Kosher mayonnaise.

What is your favourite website?

Guardian Australia (for cartoons by First Dog on the Moon in particular). 

What do you recommend as a hangover cure?

A woman who does not drink is always well.

What is on your bedside table?

My Kindle, some actual books, a glass of water, a fluffy toy Creeper* in need of mending, various types of medication, and my glasses.

(*A Minecraft character.) 

Why did you want to be a barrister? 

I didn't, for a long time, since my parents were both lawyers and I instinctively shied away. After doing an interesting but fairly impractical degree in Mediaeval English, I realised that I wasn't qualified for anything much, and while working for my father as his associate in the Supreme Court I felt that I could do better than a number of the barristers who appeared before him.

I later worked for Stephen Walmsley as his personal assistant just before I graduated, and he gave me significant encouragement to come to the bar and, when I did, he enabled me to stay there by providing me with opportunities for paid work as my tutor.

If you weren't a barrister what would you most like to be doing? 

Training and riding Grand Prix dressage horses (so it's a good thing that I am a barrister, since I would be hopeless).

What was the most important opportunity you didn't take? 

Doing a Masters in Law at NYU. I had been accepted, and was going to take subjects which would qualify me to take the NY bar exams. My husband and I were planning to move, when we found out I was pregnant with our first child and decided to stay in Sydney. We would have been there in September 2001 which would have meant our lives would have been significantly different.

What are the big issues for barristers with which you'll have to grapple? 

Gender equality, diversity, and the changing nature of barristers' practice. Legal Aid and access to justice are ongoing issues, of course. I have a particular interest in flexible work pratices and the challenges faced by parents and others returning to the bar after a break.

What has been your most memorable case? 

Apart from my current case, which is for the Truth, Justice and Healing Council in the Royal Commission, and the HMAS Adelaide litigation, which culminated in the scuttling of a warship,  I once acted for a  woman who was sight impaired and whose seeing eye dog had been dognapped because of A Woman Scorned.

We had three exciting days in Wollongong District Court arguing about the right to possession of the dog, and we won, including an order for exemplary damages and for damages for personal injury when my client was knocked over in the street during the dognapping. You can't make things like that up.

If you were on death row, what would you request for your last meal?  

Something like the Kyo-Kaiseki meal I had I Kyoto in January, because it was 13 courses, full of interesting deliciousness, and took quite a long time.

How do you keep your work and family lives in balance? Is there time for anything else?

I have three children, my daughter and seven year old twin boys, and a husband with a busy life teaching pottery, so I tend to subcontract a lot of the dull household stuff.

When I'm not in hearings I take the boys to school or catch the bus into town with my daughter, and I try very hard not to work on weekends so that I can just laze around with them. I tend to work late on weekdays as a result, and I suppose what suffers is my own private recreational time - coffee with friends, going to the movies.

I find if I don't schedule something it doesn't happen. My calendar is rather terrifying.  

If you were a foodstuff, what would you be?

There is no answer to this question, sadly.

Whom do you most admire professionally?

I would find it really impossible to say, but my two predecessors as women presidents spring to mind: Ruth McColl and Anna Katzmann. Margaret Beazley makes up an impressive trio.

On what occasions would you use a breath-freshener?

A woman who is addicted to Mentos has no need of a breath freshener.

What would you change about Australia?

Its attitude to refugees, and an inexorable hardening of attitudes to the underprivileged, the Indigenous, and the disabled.

What would your epitaph say?

"Savage and unrelenting" (I was so described earlier this year by the Courier-Mail). That, or "Finally resting".

What comes into your mind when you shut your eyes and think of the word "law"? 

A career which has provided me with fascinating opportunities and privileges. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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