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Coombs, Janet Viola (1932–2022)

by Malcolm Brown

Janet Coombs: August 16, 1932 – September 24, 2022

When Janet Coombs, a junior barrister, applied at the St Patrick’s College seminary at Manly to do a course on Canon Law, the director said: “But you’re a woman!” To which Coombs replied: “I know that. Can I do a course in Canon law?”

She got into the course, the first woman to do so, though as her brother Jim later commented, she had to “kick in the door to do it”. But her trailblazing, as in other areas of her life, had a longer-term effect. Several years later, the college opened its door to women, to wit about a dozen nuns, to do a course in theology.

Called to the bar in 1959, the eighth woman in the state’s history to do so, Coombs was then the only one practising, in an environment that was cold and discouraging. Speaking a quarter-century later, a senior barrister’s clerk, Brian Bannon, said: “The first ones had to be unconventional, even eccentric, to survive. They had to be prepared to take the cold shoulder from the establishment. They were pioneers, no doubt about it. There are a lot more now and they are accepted as candidates for vacancies on any floor.”

Janet Viola Coombs was born in London on August 16, 1932, when her father, Herbert Cole Coombs, later to become Governor of the Reserve Bank, was studying for a PhD at the London School of Economics. Her mother was Mary Alice (Lallie) Coombs, nee Ross. Janet was to be followed by brothers, John, Jim and Jerome (Jerry).

Dr Coombs returned to Australia with his wife and child in 1934 and a year later joined the Commonwealth Bank. In 1942, when Sir Owen Dixon was appointed Australia’s Minister to the United States, the family lived in his house in Melbourne and a very young Janet started reading Sir Owen’s law books and talked about becoming a High Court judge. In the meantime, she went to school at Genazzano College, where sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus inspired her with a Catholic faith that was to last for her entire life. With her father shifting between important appointments, she finished her education at Loreto Kirribilli, on Sydney’s north shore.

Coombs enrolled at Sydney University, saying she wanted to do Law, but her counsellor, apparently a little sceptical, suggested she at least do arts first. Coombs did her arts degree, which she later said was a waste of time, then did law, and on graduation became a solicitor with the Remington and Co in Sydney. She aspired to go to the bar, though then there were no women barristers, and had to draw on the advice, financial support and influence of her father.

She was called to the bar on March 13, 1959. Her brothers, Jim and Jeremy, still schoolboys, watched her acceptance. Her practice was only modest because, as Jim explained, women barristers in that era did not get much work. “There were a whole lot of things she would not do,” he said. “A lot of women barristers who came after gravitated to the Family Law jurisdiction, and Janet had no interest in Family Law matters.” In 1961, Coombs was only one of two women on the NSW Bar. Her interest in civil matters, moral standards and the status of women increased.

In 1962, she was part of a team that contested the North Sydney Council elections under the banner of Protection of Civic Rights. It was noted in the media that Coombs decided to go at a “Bench and Bar” function at the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney where she was the only woman among 136 men.

Coombs lived at the family home in Cremorne. She did not marry and when her father died looked after her mother in her mother’s declining years. Former president of the NSW Law Society Hugh Macken said she was now driven by her commitment to her Catholic faith. She became a daily communicant from her early 20s. She was head of the Right to Life Association and on the Board of the Legion of Mary, an organisation dedicated to good works, and visited the sick and impaired. Her brother Jim said: “You would always have to see Janet in the light of her Catholic faith.”

Though not practising in family law, Coombs gave advice on church annulments of marriages and marriage vows. “She did not like family law,” he said. “That was partly for religious reasons. She objected to a whole lot of stuff in the Family Court.” When, from the mid-seventies, women started to make their way in numbers in the ranks of the barristers, Coombs was co-trustee of a room in Frederick Jordan Chambers, which was made available at a subsidised rent for a year for women beginning practise at the bar.

She made it a practice to take out each new female barrister to lunch. She would allow each new female barrister to use her chambers for the first six months of their practice. One of those was Mary Gaudron, who had been unable to find a room in chambers. A tradition developed afterwards that the Women’s Bar Association held regular lunches to welcome new female members.

Coombs developed an eclectic group of clients, including former dominatrix Madame Lash, real name Gretel Pinniger, with whom she was friends. Coombs also represented a number of defrocked priests. In 1979, she represented Fred Nile and the Australian Festival of Light in an application by Channel 10 to renew its broadcasting licence, arguing that Channel 10 had made numerous breaches of community standards.

She also represented the Festival of Light in a court action before the tribunal after Channel Seven aired a program involving a naked man on a Sydney beach. In 1982, Coombs represented the Festival of Light before the broadcasting tribunal over Channel Ten’s decision to screen two documentaries featuring Penthouse magazines.

Coombs was a lifetime devotee of the arts, in particular film, and sat on the board of the Bell Shakespeare Company. But she remained vigilant. In 1986, she complained about the proposed screening of Je Vous Salue Marie – condemned by the Pope as an attack on the Faith – which was proposed to be shown at the Sydney Film Festival. She wrote a number of biting letters to newspapers taking up issues of faith and doctrine. In 1987, Coombs appeared for Elaine Nile in a bid to have a senator disqualified from office over alleged past offences.

In 1998, having been made a member of the Order of Australia (AM), Coombs retired as the longest-serving female barrister in NSW, and was made an honorary life member of the Bar Association of NSW. In 2010, she was made a Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great, Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice and Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Coombs attended her last public event in August this year and died on September 24. A Requiem Mass was held at St Mary’s Catholic Church, North Sydney, on October 17.

Janet Coombs is survived by her brother, Jim, 11 nieces and four nephews and their families.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Coombs, Janet Viola (1932–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/coombs-janet-viola-32960/text41067, accessed 3 February 2023.

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