Q&A with a Former Barrister at Law and retired NSW Crown Prosecutor

Q&A with a Former Barrister at Law and retired NSW Crown Prosecutor

By dear molly

1. Virginia, your career as a Barrister has spanned 35 years. What is your fondest memory?

I came to the Bar in July 1983. That same year I was briefed to appear in a criminal case for a man called van duc Hai who was from Vietnam and had only been in Australia for 3 months when he was charged with a  serious assault charge. He and his co-accused appeared in the District Court at Liverpool and I acted for him. After a jury trial, he was acquitted. On 30 July 1984, I received a parcel. A letter enclosed reads as follows.

‘Dear Ms Lydiard, thank you very much for the work you did on my behalf during my recent encounter with the Police. Being in a new country is difficult and having to face the legal system is frightening. Your support and encouragement were very much appreciated. Please accept the pictures as a sign of my thanks. They are sent to me by my family in Vietnam’

The pictures are four black enamelled panels inlaid with mother of pearl and each panel represents one of the seasons. They have hung in my chambers for 34 years as a treasured memory.


2. You came to the law later in life? What was the reason for you choosing it? 

My choice of law was quite accidental. I had given up my teaching career to help my husband in a Federal Election in 1977. After the election was over, I no longer had my teaching. I did not have a Diploma of Education and in any event, I was finding teaching stressful in the sense that the children were so reliant on teachers for their future success. I always felt I should have been putting more effort into the preparation of classes. In a chance conversation with a friend I had a thought bubble and said to her: ‘what I would love to do is law!’. Her response was: ‘If you want to do it- do it’. So I did.


3. Before you were a Barrister you were a teacher and a political wife. What has each role taught you?

As a teacher, I learnt how important the role of a teacher is in developing a child’s life. I don’t think you quite appreciated that as the child being taught. I regretted not having attained a Diploma of Education before I commenced my teaching career and I had to learn on my feet. Funnily enough, I went on to do the same thing by going to the Bar without an experience. Being a political wife was informative in the sense that I became aware of the trials and tribulations of peoples lives of which I was oblivious, given the world I came from. I was blessed to have come from a stable, loving and close family which gave me opportunities in life which are not available to all. I believe the experience as a political wife assisted me to become the compassionate and fair lawyer that I became.


4. When you first started out at the Bar in 1983 there were 13 women working as Barristers in NSW. Now there are over 500.  Have we really come that far?

I think the figure of 13 is too low. I believe 5% of all barristers at the NSW Bar in 1983 were women- the total number being 800 ( so 40 women).  A recent publication has noted that there are now 556 barristers and a total number of 2401 barristers. Thus 23.16% are female. We have come a long way but given that more than 50% of Law graduates in Australia are women we have a long way to go before there is true equality in the profession.


5. Your legal studies started later in life when you were a single mum with 3 teenage children. How did you manage the juggle?

In the first two years I was studying by correspondence the Legal Studies Course through Macquarie University I was still in Orange and still married. When I moved to Sydney at the end of 1981 I was separated and I transferred to the Graduate Law Course at the University of New South Wales.  My two boys were at boarding school and Juliet my daughter was at home with me. I studied full time and recall many nights when I sat up all night studying and drinking coffee with the result that I developed an allergy/intolerance to coffee. Thanks to the wonderfully supportive co-students like Gerri Ettinger I was able to complete my studies in two and a half years and I was actually admitted to the Bar on 8 July 1983 but I did not graduate until the following October.


6. What do you feel has been your greatest achievement?

Without a doubt, my greatest achievement is comprised by my children who are all happy, healthy achieving human beings, who are each making their own substantial contribution to society and who have given me four grandchildren ranging in age from 26 to 11.


7. You have said that there although there has been progress for women in law there is still a ‘helluva long way to go’. Can you elaborate on this?

In 1982, in conjunction with Gerri Ettinger, I wrote a paper entitled ‘Women in Law in New South Wales’. The paper was written as part of the requirements of our study of Law Lawyers and Society. In our conclusion we wrote:

‘Women in the legal profession in New South Wales are in a similar position to their sisters in Britain and America. The profession has been a difficult one for women to break into, it being a strong male preserve for centuries. However, women are entering the profession in greater and greater numbers. With more women in the profession, with more experienced women in the profession and with changing social attitudes, the female lawyer in Australia and particularly New South Wales is approaching the situation where the female lawyer is no longer regarded as an oddity, but she is regarded as a  ‘legal person’. Whether this situation comes about as a result of the pressure of numbers of female lawyers, whether it is a result of a dramatic change in attitude, not only of the male but of society generally, remains to be seen. However, we would suggest that the ideal situation of total equality in the legal profession will not be achieved until the male accepts his responsibility as the producer of children and the female accepts her responsibility to work. Then, and only then, can the balance be achieved which will produce the equality which we as aspiring members of the legal profession, desire’.

Geri and I wrote another paper with the identical title in 2002 and our conclusion was that not much had changed in the 20-year intervening period.

A recent survey by the NSW Bar Association shows that of the 2401 barristers, 556 are female. Of the 390 Senior Counsel, 44 are female.

There is a temptation to ask Geri to help me write another paper entitled: ‘Women in the Law in NSW’ but given I am now 75, I have retired from the DPP, where I was a Crown Prosecutor for 18 years and I am about to embark on a Fine Arts Degree at the National Art School, I think I should resist the temptation!


8. If you could turn to your 21-year-old self and give out some good old words of wisdom, what would they be?

I would say- “be kind to yourself- don’t expect too much but take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to you without being constrained by your fears and insecurities. Rely on your instincts and your upbringing but keep an open mind about the different attitudes and values of people that you meet in the course of your daily life. Be patient, kind and tolerant and never too judgmental”.


9. Any regrets?

No regrets


10. If you could give one piece of advice to women out there contemplating a change in careers or dealing with the juggle of family and work, what would it be?

Just do it!

Image via Australia Financial Review (Supplied) Virginia Lydiard with granddaughter Stella in 2018, when the crown prosecutor retired from the law. 

dear molly

Virginia Lydiard graduated with a Law degree from the University of New South Wales in 1983. That same year she went straight to the Bar and in July 1983 became a member of Sixteenth Floor Wardell Chambers for sixteen years. She was appointed as an acting Crown Prosecutor for the Department of Public Prosecutions in NSW in 2000 and by 2002 her position had become permanent.  She continued in this role until she retired in 2018. Since her retirement she has been accepted to undertake a Fine Arts Degree at the National Art School at Darlinghurst. She holds the following memberships: NSW Bar Association, Royal Sydney Golf Club,  Rose Bay Surf Club,   Art Gallery of New South Wales. She enjoys writing, painting, swimming, walking, reading, travelling and her grandchildren.


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