‘Thoughtful’ judge to be state coroner

A FEMALE solicitor had been told off by a judge for the then sin of coming to court in polka-dot stockings and a suit with a skirt that finished above the knee.
While debate over the issue raged in the media, one magistrate made her own sartorial statement. Jennifer Coate spent the next week wearing stockings that were “most fantastically patterned”, recalls her friend and colleague, County Court judge Felicity Hampel.
Ms Coate made it her business to cross and re-cross the yard at the centre of the city court complex many times, smiling serenely, apparently unaware of the comments her lurid legs were causing in the legal quarter. That was 1993, but the underlying principle still holds. “She’s never afraid to say or do what is right,” says Judge Hampel.
Jennifer Coate is to be the new state coroner. She leaves the County Court bench and her role as the first president of the Children’s Court to take up her appointment tomorrow.
Attorney-General Rob Hulls said yesterday Ms Coate would be the first woman and the first judge in the role.
She replaces Graeme Johnstone, whom Mr Hulls thanked for his commitment over the past 13 years, particularly for his work on deaths in custody.
Judge Coate was unavailable for comment as she is still on the bench. But her appointment was greeted warmly by people who have worked with her.
Judge Coate worked as a teacher while studying law part-time. She has been a solicitor, barrister and academic, and contributed to a range of social policy groups and committees before becoming a magistrate in 1992 and a judge in 2000. She has also been a part-time Victorian Law Reform Commissioner since 2001 and presided over the establishment of the Children’s Koori Court in 2005.
“She’s a very thoughtful and considered person with enormous energy,” Judge Hampel said. “She’s a strong person but not an aggressive confrontationalist. She’s measured; she sits back and thinks and listens and always has a very calm approach to things. She has a great way of diffusing aggression or tension.”
The Victorian Law Reform Commission’s chief executive, Padma Raman, said: “She’s that right combination of an extremely bright lawyer who also understands law in the social context and brings into focus the perspective of people affected by the law, such as victims.”
Judge Coate is expected to oversee changes to the Coroner’s Court in response to recommendations by a 2005 Victorian parliamentary inquiry.

First published in The Age.