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Mahla Liane Pearlman (1937–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

When Mahla Pearlman was elevated from the ranks of solicitors to the bench of the NSW Land and Environment Court and as chief judge, a peeved barrister sent her a copy of the Evidence Act, reflecting a barrister joke that solicitors did not know anything about evidence.

Pearlman, a farmer's daughter born in the north-west NSW town of Boggabri, was not to be put off. The first woman to become chief judge of any jurisdiction within the state, she had already achieved other ''firsts'': as female president of the Law Society and female president of the Law Council of Australia.

She conceded that some barristers were ''less than thrilled'' about her appointment to the bench, but said: ''I don't think of myself as a woman lawyer. I think of myself as a lawyer. Then I get on with it ! I suppose my appointment is good for me and good for women. I hope it's good for the legal profession and good for solicitors.''

Mahla Liane Pearlman was born on June 2, 1937, first child of Mark and Minnie Pearlman, and granddaughter of Abraham Pearlman, who migrated from present-day Moldova in 1887. Mahla grew up on the family property, ''Herzlton'', near Boggabri and rode a horse with her brother, Braham, to school. On one occasion Minnie played host to a visiting judge. At that point Mahla announced that she too would become a judge.

She was sent to the Methodist Ladies College, Burwood, then to the University of Sydney, initially to study arts and education. ''It was serendipity that got me into law,'' she said. ''It was just a happy discovery. I was an ordinary arts student and didn't much like the idea of teaching.'' She did a postgraduate degree in law, graduating with honours in 1960.

Pearlman practised as a solicitor, and from 1966 was a partner in a number of distinguished legal firms.

She did not entirely depart from her country origins. In the early 1970s, she started dressage training at the Tibor Equestrian Centre and went on to compete, for a period living in Paddington, keeping her horse in Turramurra and training at Kellyville.

In 1981, she was elected president of the Law Society of NSW. In 1983, she became chairwoman of the board of governors of the College of Law. In January 1985, Pearlman was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the legal profession. In 1988, she was appointed deputy president of the International Bar Association. In 1989, she became president of the Law Council of Australia, representing 27,000 solicitors and barristers. The year 1991 saw two appointments, one as chairwoman of Guardian Trust Australia Ltd and membership of the Police Board of NSW.

In 1992, she went to the bench, an appointment that brought much discussion. Critics of the system said the pool of potential judges had always been too narrow, and should be widened to include solicitors and even academics, which itself would increase the prospects of women. Of 45 NSW Supreme Court judges at the time, just one was a woman. Of nine judges on the Industrial Commission, one was a woman and there was only one woman among 56 District Court judges. A woman sat on the Compensation Court, and eight of the 126 stipendiary magistrates were women. As to her approach to the job, she said at the time that she was a ''conservative'', and certainly not ''a greenie''. But Justice Terry Sheahan was to say of her: ''She led the court supremely well, and did all the 'chief judge cases' of her time. She brought to them her fine legal mind.''

Pearlman did not marry. ''I don't think I could have had my career over these 30 years if I had married,'' she said. ''You could do it now, though.'' Pearlman took on a variety of other appointments through her career, often as chair or president, and a rumour persisted that in 2001 Premier Bob Carr seriously considered appointing her governor.

Instead, Pearlman retired in 2003 and returned to the country, managing her own property at Allynbrook, in the Hunter Valley. The following year, in June, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia.

She is survived by her brother.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Pearlman, Mahla Liane (1937–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

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