Obituary: a master mind in many fields

Judith Medlicott, photographed when retiring as chancellor of the University of Otago. Photo:...
Judith Medlicott, photographed when retiring as chancellor of the University of Otago. Photo: Jane Dawber
Lawyer, community leader

While Judith Olwyn Medlicott took great pride in raising her family, she was equally at home as a highly intellectual and prominent Dunedin lawyer, tirelessly advocating for women and children.

She was born in Invercargill on March 6, 1942, and was the first of Max and Amy Sloan’s two children.

She started at St George School, and when the family moved to Dunedin in 1951, she attended Mornington School and then Otago Girls’ High School, where she developed a passion for art, singing and acting.

At that time she was an avid member of the Dunedin Shakespeare Society.

Following school, she studied English, French, Latin and philosophy at the University of Otago, graduating with a master of arts in 1964.

While at university, she was a member of the Otago University Dramatic Society and acted in The Country Wife and then The Lady’s Not For Burning.

It was there that she met her future husband, Tim Medlicott, a fellow actor and medical student.

Soon after, they married and had three children — Christopher, Louisa and Richard.

Raising a family was a fulltime job, but it was not sufficient to keep her intellectually stimulated.

She managed to find time to attend a course on pottery and porcelain given by Mervyn Palmer, which led to a love of fine antique porcelain.

Over her lifetime, she built up a museum-class collection of beautiful porcelain and high-quality artworks, generally by local artists, and she appreciated being able to support them.

Judith Medlicott, photographed after winning Mastermind; her specialist subject was Sir Anthony...
Judith Medlicott, photographed after winning Mastermind; her specialist subject was Sir Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time novels. Photo: supplied
In 1971, a large group of her friends started returning from overseas studies, and were filled with the fervour of the feminist movement.

Their influence led to a radical change in her outlook and she embraced those ideas as a founding member of the Dunedin Collective for Women.

The group went on to organise a major survey on women’s attitudes to abortion, campaigned against gender stereotyping in school reading books, took part in a demonstration outside the Miss New Zealand pageant, and worked for better conditions of women in employment. She also became a member of the new Society for Research on Women.

The organisations and their new way of looking at the world spurred her to satisfy her need for intellectual stimulation, and she looked around for another academic course she could study while still raising her young family.

Law lectures fitted the kindergarten and school drop-off and pick-up timetables, so she returned to the University of Otago to study for a bachelor of laws degree.

She worked hard, often studying late into the night, and graduated with an LLB in 1974.

She was admitted to the bar in 1975, and joined law firm Cook Allan and Co, specialising in family law.

By 1980, she had been made a partner in the firm.

Six years later, she set up her own practice in a collective with Katherine Weatherall and Susan Bathgate, and continued to be a strong and successful advocate for women, children and families.

Her legal work often centred on issues of significance to women, such as Family Court and relationship property issues.

She was also frequently appointed by the Family Court to represent children in custody and welfare cases.

Around the same time, she was elected to the Council of the University of Otago and was a general council member from 1985 to 1990.

In 1988, she was one of the founding members of the Otago Women’s Law Society (OWLS) which encouraged, supported and mentored other woman lawyers. She was later made a life member in recognition of her lengthy law career, during which she broke through the gender barrier and assisted other women to achieve success in their own legal careers.

Judith Medlicott was an expert in family law.  Photo: ODT files
Judith Medlicott was an expert in family law. Photo: ODT files
Also in 1988, wanting even more of a life challenge, she entered the New Zealand Mastermind television competition with her specialist topic, the 12-volume sequence of books titled A Dance to the Music of Time, by Sir Anthony Powell.

She went on to win and that lifted her profile nationally.

Then in 1991, she was appointed as pro-chancellor of the University of Otago, and in 1993 she became the chancellor — a  role she held for a further six years.

It was a time of rapid expansion at the university and a time of turmoil with the introduction of student fees, resulting in student protests and the occupation of the registry building.

In 1995 she was joined in her law practice by her son, Christopher, to form the law firm Medlicotts, which continues to provide family law services today.

Her contribution to the University of Otago was recognised by the conferral of an honorary doctor of laws in 1998, and in the same year she received the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours,  for services to the legal profession, education and the community.

During her long and distinguished career, she has been chairwoman of the Otago Law Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee, served on the National Law Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee, the Otago District Legal Aid Committee, the Dunedin Family Court Committee, she was president of the Otago Graduates’ Association, a member of the Federation of University Women, patron of the Otago University Development Society and was on the Rhodes Scholar selection panel.

She also served on the board of Radio New Zealand, the Otago Hospital Board and the board of the Ashburn Hall Charitable Trust.

In the background during this time she was a keen bridge player at the Otago Bridge Club and played in tournaments from 1972 to 2019, earning 275 A points and appearing on the club honours board a number of times.

Dr Medlicott retired in 2015 and spent some  years with Tim, establishing and running a hazelnut farm at Outram.

While she was an important public figure in Dunedin’s legal and academic arenas, her family saw her as an inspirational mother, caring for her children without unnecessary constraints or expectations, so that they grew up to be successful and kind adults.

She adored her family, and they all adored her.

Dr Medlicott died on May 4,  aged 82, and is survived by husband Tim, children Christopher, Louisa and Richard, and her six grandchildren.