Otago University honours judge

WILMA MCCORKINDALE
Last updated 05:00 19/05/2014
christine french
WILMA MCCORKINDALE/ Fairfax NZ
HAPPY TIMES: Justice Christine French with the Honorary Doctorate of Laws conferred on her at a ceremony in Dunedin.

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Southland-born High Court pioneer Justice Christine French has taken a swipe at doubters who diss the provinces.

French, a distinguished University of Otago law graduate, graciously accepted an Honorary Doctorate of Laws conferred on her by the university and gave a candid speech as invited speaker at a graduation ceremony in Dunedin Town Hall on Saturday.

If her career had demonstrated anything, French told those graduating, it was that working in the provinces was not a disadvantage.

"Time and time again I was told that I should leave Invercargill if I wanted to do any good. I came to get quite a complex, not helped when I visited Auckland once and was introduced to this woman. On being told where I came from, she said: ‘Oh well, that explains the legs then'."

"My view is that it doesn't matter where you work so long as you have a passion for what you do and a sense of purpose."

French advised graduands: "Don't panic if you have not yet found it. You will. But don't be satisfied until you have found it. And then aspire to be the best you can."

French gained an LLB Hons in 1981, and in 2012 was the first woman Otago Law graduate to be appointed to the New Zealand Court of Appeal. She previously gained the distinction of being the first South Island woman to be appointed to the High Court.

The University of Otago Vice-Chancellor, Professor Harlene Hayne, said the university was delighted to honour a graduate who exemplified many of the qualities associated with Otago alumni.

"Christine French has excelled academically and professionally while also sharing her time and skills to enhance the life of her community," Hayne said.

In spite of her high achievements, French confessed she actually never made it to her own capping.

"I missed out in 1981 because of failing to finish my dissertation in time for the ceremony - which is probably why this speech will make no mention of organisational skills.

"Anyway, I have always subscribed to the theory that an organised person is simply someone who is too lazy to look for things."

French grew up in Invercargill, finishing her school years as dux of James Hargest High School.

After completing her Otago studies she was selected to become the university's first woman Rhodes Scholar and studied at Worcester College, Oxford University. She graduated bachelor of civil law in 1983, gaining a qualification regarded as one of the most academically demanding postgraduate-taught law courses in the world.

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In 1984 French returned to Invercargill and joined French Burt Partners, where she specialised in general civil litigation and employment law and became a partner in the firm in 1988.

Among her many notable cases, she won a landmark ruling at the Privy Council in 1995, chiefly concerning the negligence liability of local authorities for building problems their inspectors do not detect.

French has also been noted for her service to the community, including through a 1998 Southland Regional Council anniversary award.

After her 1991-2002 service as a University of Otago Council member, the council resolved to record formally its appreciation for her valuable contribution to the university during those years.

Other boards that French has served on include James Hargest High School, St John's Girls' School, and the Otago-Southland Anglican Diocesan Trust Board.

- The Southland Times

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