Jane Mathews - EDO NSW

Vale The Hon Jane Mathews AO (1940-2019) – What a woman!

The Board and staff of EDO NSW pay tribute to our Patron and former Chair, the Hon. Jane Mathews AO, who passed away last weekend.

Jane lived an extraordinary life, one dedicated to serving the community. As noted by many, Jane did not just believe in equality, she used her life to push for its reality. And, in reality, Jane’s life contributed to making society more equal for all of us.


A great deal has been said this week about Jane’s remarkable legal career. The Bar Association’s tribute described her career as a “string of firsts”. She was the first female crown prosecutor appointed in 1977, the first woman judge in NSW when she was appointed to the District Court in 1980 and the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1987. She would go on to serve in the Federal Court of Australia – where she sat as an Acting Judge until last year – and was President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.  Jane’s distinguished legal career was all the more impressive because of the prejudice and discrimination she faced along the way. 

Jane had many interests outside of the law. Her love of opera, particularly Wagner’s Ring Cycle, was famous. For the years she served as Chair of the EDO, there was a strong correlation between whether meetings were chaired with ruthless efficiency – nights when Jane had an engagement with the opera to follow – and meetings where there was considerably more latitude for discussion.

A less reported fact about Jane was her passion for the environment and her commitment to seeing environmental laws improved and more rigorously enforced. Jane’s leadership was that of a true champion of the EDOs.  Engaged to the very end, Jane never missed an opportunity to advocate on the significance of environmental laws, to make an important introduction and to speak forcefully about the role and importance of the Environmental Defenders Office. 

Jane often spoke with us about how critical environmental laws were in the context of the dual threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.  In her first meeting as Chair of the Board, Jane was asked why she wanted to Chair the EDO and she noted her love for the environment and words to the effect, “It’ll allow me to spread my wings”. She spoke fondly of her times at Kangaroo Valley and her family connection with the King Parrot, “the most wonderful of birds”. Jane also took a keen interest in the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage work of the office, this was an area she had hoped to be more involved in on her retirement from the Court.

Jane was appointed Chair of EDO NSW on 23 October 2013 and remained in that role until 12 March this year, when she was forced to step down because of her illness. Her association with the EDO did not, however, stop there. She recently accepted the invitation to serve as EDO NSW’s Patron.

It was an incredible honour for all of us involved with EDO NSW to have Jane serve as our Chair for more than five years and, recently, as our Patron.  Jane mentioned how her involvement with the EDO had enriched her life. We can safely say the feeling is mutual and we shall we miss her dearly.

In a recent EDO publication Jane stated, “I would like to be remembered as a person who made a real contribution to our society and in my view, environmental issues are the most important issues facing the globe today”.  There need be no doubt that Jane will be remembered as a person whose contribution to society was both enormous and rare.  

6 September 2019