Janet Viola Coombs AM DSG CEP DGCHS (1932 – 2022)
Janet Coombs died aged 90 years on 24 September 2022 after experiencing a short period of ill health. Janet had the distinction of being the woman with the longest running practice at the Sydney Bar, practising continuously from 13 Selborne Chambers from 1959 to her retirement in 1998. She was admitted to the Bar on Friday, 13 March 1959, the eigth woman to have been so admitted. The circle of her friendships and the magnitude of her personal code of generosity assured her an extraordinary life and career with many admirers and friends.
Janet would share chambers with new women barristers who at the time had great difficulty in obtaining chambers. She advanced the cause of women barristers clearly and humanely. Her personal sense of kindness knew no bounds and that very element of collegiality and kinship with others was her most enduring personality trait.
Janet Coombs’ memory will shine brightly in hearts of many barristers who came to the Bar in the 1960s through to the 1980s. She was distinguished for her magnanimity. As a barrister, some days are harder than others, and Janet understood that only too well. Her life at the Bar was a calling and a privilege but also a relentless lifestyle. Singlehandedly, she coaxed and encouraged a generation or two of barristers to continue in practice and to reach great heights.
Janet was the only daughter of Dr HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs and Mrs Mary Alice Coombs. Her brothers included John Coombs QC a past President of the NSW Bar (pre-deceased), her brother Jerry (predeceased) and her younger brother the Magistrate Jim Coombs. Her father, Dr HC ‘Nugget’ Coombs was the Governor of the Reserve Bank 1960 – 1968, Keynesian in philosophy, a prominent public servant and administrator, and trusted advisor to the Curtin, Chifley and Menzies governments. Dr Coombs’ old Australian manner earned him the accolade of ‘distinguished yet down to earth statesman.’ These qualities were greatly expressed by Janet, although she was always her own person. Janet attended Catholic schools in Melbourne and then in Sydney, completing her secondary education at the Loreto College Kirribilli.
She then attended the University of Sydney, where she attained the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws. This was all done in an age when women were not readily visible and studying at university. Janet was a leading light. Janet was a pioneer of women in the legal profession in New South Wales, being the doyenne of female barristers from 1959 until her retirement.
She was a founding member of the Women Lawyers’ Association and actively encouraged other women to join the Bar, not only providing company and advice, but also a desk and telephone in her Chambers so that they could commence practice. Later, in the early 1970s, she was instrumental in acquiring a room, known as ‘The Women Lawyers’ Room’, in Frederick Jordan Chambers. She and Jennifer Blackman became ‘trustees’ of the room to ensure chambers were available for new women barristers. Janet was determined that new women barristers should participate fully in the life of the Bar and insisted that each new woman barrister should accompany her to lunch in the Bar Common Room. As the number of new women barristers grew, the Women Lawyers’ Association took over to organise a lunch, known as ‘The Janet Coombs lunch’ which is now held biannually to welcome new women barristers and to honour Janet’s work. For her work in advancing the cause of women in the legal profession, Janet was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1997 (‘For service to women in law, particularly through the Women Lawyers, Association and the St Thomas More Society’), and was appointed a life member of the New South Wales Bar Association.
Throughout her life Janet was a committed and devout member of the Catholic Church, usually attending daily Mass at various churches in Mosman, North Sydney and the Cathedral. Janet loved the prayers, the ritual and the singing. She was unshakeable in her faith. Until recent times Janet resided at Mosman, regularly attending the early Mass (where she was an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist) in both the Parish of Sydney Harbour North at Mosman (where she was a lector at the Church of St Therese of the Child Jesus at Beauty Point); and in the Parish of Our Lady of the Way at North Sydney, regularly attending Mass at St Mary’s, North Sydney and at St Francis Xavier, Lavender Bay (where she was a lector). Janet was a catechist at the North JV Coombs Drawing - October 1971 Sydney Public School and also at the local Beauty Point Public School. Janet was active in many ministries of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Sydney (both at parish level and at an archdiocesan level), throughout New South Wales, and nationally. In many of these ministries she was a pioneer, a role model and exemplar for women, especially for Catholic women. Janet was deeply committed to the pro-life movement.
Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace: Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum Quod paravisti ante faciem omnium populorum: Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel. Canticle of Simeon Luke (2:25-32)
For more than 40 years she was active in the Right to Life Association, being a member of its council, and actively opposing the pro-abortion legislation enacted by the New South Wales Parliament in 2019. In such public causes, Janet was an Ancienne Combattante, who fought hard and tirelessly. She never gave up. Since the late 1950s, Janet was active in the St Thomas More Society (the organisation of Catholic lawyers in New South Wales), serving on the committee of that society for many years. Upon the untimely death of its then president, the distinguished Silk John Traill, KCSG, QC, in 1983 she was appointed acting president of the society. It was essentially for her work in the St Thomas More Society that at the time of the celebrations to mark the Golden Jubilee of that society Janet was awarded the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (CEP) in 1995. For many years Janet was a member, and for two separate periods was the chairman, of the Mosman-Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council (an ecumenical organisation). One of the ministries of the Church in which Janet was closely involved was the study and practise of Canon Law.
In this regard, Janet was a member of the select cognoscenti. In this field she was a pioneer, being one of the first laypersons, and certainly the first laywoman, to become qualified in Australia. In the late 1960s she studied Canon Law at St Patrick’s College, Manly (now the Catholic Institute of Sydney at Strathfield), where she was the first non-seminarian student. In 2012, upon the motion of the Most Reverend Robert McGuckin, now Bishop of Toowoomba, a former president of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand, Janet was appointed a life member of that society. She has enthusiastically encouraged the study of Canon Law in Australia. Through Janet’s efforts, a course in Canon Law was established by the School of Law of the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney. There has been endowed in that School the Janet Coombs Prize for Introduction to Canon Law.
Often Janet was the only woman in the room in this most rare of legal specialities. And in time, the world changed. One significant commitment of Janet to the Catholic Church and its ministries has been through the Legion of Mary, of which she was a very active member for more than 60 years, holding office at parish, archdiocesan and state levels. Janet was an active member of the New South Wales Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem since the establishment of that Lieutenancy in 1995. Her regular participation in the activities of the Order and her commitment to its aims were recognised by her regular promotion through the various grades of the Order, culminating in her appointment as a Dame of the Grand Cross of the Order (DGCHS). Janet was always very visible in and around Sydney, notable for her always distinctive headgear. For her distinguished services to the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Sydney, Janet in 2020 was awarded by Pope Francis the honour of Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great (DSG). Janet had an extraordinary zest for life which she shared with many.
However, since retirement her life of work at the Bar seemed to be replaced with all of her extra-curricular activities. Janet Coombs will be remembered for many accomplishments both personal and professional. Over two hundred people attended Janet’s obsequies – a testament to the esteem and admiration in which she was held. Janet sparkled in life. She lived with courage and determination. But no other aspect will be emphasised more than her legacy of kindness and generosity, which has been unequalled. May her light shine brightly. By Justice David Davies, The Hon Mary Gaudron KC and Dr John Kennedy McLaughlin