Remembering the Hon Rosemary Balmford AM

By Méabh Loughnane

The Honourable Rosemary Anne Balmford AM was a trailblazer for women in the law. In 1957, she served as the University of Melbourne’s first permanent female lecturer in law; close to 40 years later, she became Victoria’s first female Supreme Court judge.

In her 84-year lifetime, the Honourable Rosemary Anne Balmford AM (LLB(Hons) 1955, MBA 1972) made a remarkable contribution to the legal community, accomplishing a series of ‘firsts’ as a pioneer for women in the law.

She was the first woman to be appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria, the first woman to run a murder trial in the state and the first woman to be appointed a permanent lecturer in law at the University of Melbourne.

At Justice Balmford’s funeral in August, Justice Pamela Tate recalled Justice Balmford’s speech from her welcome ceremony to the Supreme Court, where she said she hoped “her appointment would help establish in the minds of other women an awareness that they could aspire to the same”.

Born Rosemary Norris in 1933, Justice Balmford completed a Bachelor of Laws at the University of Melbourne, where she resided at Janet Clarke Hall. In her 2013 memoir, Justice Balmford reflected on the things she loved about life on campus, including long walks with coffee, eating lunch on the lawns, dances and college balls.

“The University was one’s whole life,” she wrote. “In my first year I would wake up every morning and think ‘another wonderful day!’”

Justice Balmford won the Supreme Court Prize in 1954, an award which was given to the LLB student who placed first in the final examinations. She began her legal career at Whiting & Byrne and when admitted to practise in 1956 was one of only five women admitted at the ceremony (there were 27 men). As a student, Justice Balmford was frequently told that the law was a “funny course for a woman”, an expression she chose for the title of her memoir more than 50 years later.

She married Peter Balmford in 1963 and gave birth to their son Christopher. She returned to Whiting & Byrne soon after and went on to take a position in the in-house legal team at the University of Melbourne, where she also completed a Master of Business Administration. In 1971, Justice Balmford was appointed founding Executive Director of the Leo Cussen Institute for Continuing Legal Education.

Later that decade, while serving on the Equal Opportunity Board, she heard the landmark sex discrimination in employment case Wardley v Ansett Transport Industries. In 1982, she was appointed as a senior member of the Commonwealth Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Justice Balmford was appointed to the County Court of Victoria in 1993, at a time when no other women were serving on the court. In 1996, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Justice Balmford served the Supreme Court until her retirement in 2003. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2012 for her “service to the judiciary, the practice of law in Victoria and to the study of ornithology”.

As Justice Tate reflected in her eulogy, “the women judges of Victoria owe Rosemary a great deal”.

“She was an inspiration to all of us.

“More generally, the legal profession of Victoria is indebted to Rosemary for her pioneering contribution.”

Banner image: Rosemary Balmford (centre) with students after a lecture in the Old Arts Building, University of Melbourne, first term 1953.

Credit: University of Melbourne Photographs, University of Melbourne Archives, 1986.0200.00002

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 18, November 2017