Woman French, Valerie
- Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Written by Larissa Halonkin, Australian National University
In 1975 Valerie French became the first woman to sign the Western Australia Bar Roll and became the first woman to practice as a barrister in Western Australia. From that time, French's professional appointments and legal career have continued to serve as a guide for women entering into the legal profession in Western Australia. Beyond her impact on the legal profession as a 'first' at the Bar, her substantive legal practice has also influenced Australian law and legal policy, particularly in the field of criminal justice.
French was born in Sydney to parents, Jim Lumsden and Thelma Lovell. Her father's family had emigrated from Scotland to Australia and her mother's family were descended from Irish and convict heritage. French has a sister and two brothers. When she was seven her family left their Sydney base and relocated to Perth, where she attended Loreto Convent. Her father's work as a lecturer in the Psychology Department at the University of Western Australia led to more travel with one year at school in Princeton in 1962 and another year in an American High School in Bangkok (Kerwin and Rubenstein).
In 1967, French entered law school at the University of Western Australia. At that time, women constituted only ten per cent of the law school population. In 1971 she graduated with an LLB and completed her articles immediately, being admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor in the Supreme Court of Western Australia in 1973. In 1975, after spending a year overseas working casually, she returned to Perth and became the first woman to join the Western Australia bar.
In 1976 she married Robert French and had three sons. Robert French become Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia in September 2008, after having been appointed a judge of the Federal Court of Australia in November 1986. French continued to work part-time while her children were young. She took on locum work, was employed as a part-time lecturer in legal studies and was the duty counsel with the Western Australia Law Society. Then in 1981 she took on the role of Legal Chairman of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and later a part-time Children's Court Magistrate (Kerwin and Rubenstein). Returning to full-time work at the bar in 1987, French worked predominantly in commercial and taxation litigation and for one to two days a week she also continued her work on the Children's Court. Seeking a more secure and regular salary than the Bar could offer, French accepted a position as a senior associate in the law firm, Blake Dawson Waldron.
French subsequently applied for a position as Magistrate in the Perth Court of Petty Sessions. Entering the judiciary as a permanent judge provided her with a sense of balance to her family life. Professionally, French's return to the courtroom this time as a judge, allowed her the independence and exciting immediacy she had originally enjoyed as a litigator (Kerwin and Rubenstein). In 1993 and 1994 French was also The Mining Warden for Western Australia.
In 1994, from the Court of Petty Sessions, French was appointed into the District Court and, at the end of 1998, President of the Western Australian Children's Court. At the time media attention and public engagement with the work of the Children's Court - a court for the trial of underage offenders - was high and for French her appointment as President of the Children's Court was the 'highpoint' in her time as a judge (Kerwin and Rubenstein). After her Children's Court appointment expired, French returned to the District Court and in 2006 was appointed full time Chair of the Parole Board (now the Prisoner's Review Board). Here she again led the entry of women into the role and introduced a new style of practice, pioneering a parole process where prisoner applicants were given the opportunity to be interviewed in person or by video link, receiving clear explanations of the review process and reasons for the Parole Board's decisions (Kerwin and Rubenstein). While still technically a district court judge, French remained effectively full time at the Parole Board until she retired, on her 60th birthday in 2009.
French forged a path in the legal profession in Western Australia, leading the entry of women into the bar and judicial office. Her approach to the roles of magistrate, judge and chair of the Parole Board focused on good communication with all stakeholders in the justice system to improve understanding of the processes and outcomes.
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- Kerwin, Hollie and Rubenstein, Kim, 'Reading the Life Narrative of Valerie French, the First Woman to Sign the Western Australian Bar Roll', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 172-187. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/fff/pdfs/french.pdf. Details
- High Court of Australia, 'Robert Shenton French AC', in High Court of Australia: Justices, 2010, http://www.hcourt.gov.au/justices/current/chief-justice-french-ac. Details
- Valerie French interviewed by Kim Rubenstein in the Trailblazing women and the law pilot oral history project
- 24 May 2010
- National Library of Australia
- National Library of Australia Oral History Collection