New Zealand Law Society - Judge Claire Ryan: On the bench and among the stars

Judge Claire Ryan: On the bench and among the stars

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Newly appointed District Court Judge, breast cancer survivor, Matariki enthusiast and energetic teacher, Judge Claire Ryan does not do things by halves. 

Since being admitted in 1985, Ms Ryan has had a distinguished career. She worked for Nicholson Gribben (now Phillips Fox), Chapman Tripp and her late father, Kevin Ryan QC, before moving to Melbourne in 1990. 

Judge Ryan became an associate at Moores Legal, spending five years practising family and criminal law. She says she particularly enjoyed working in the St Kilda office with clients such as homeless people and those with disabilities, mental illnesses and alcohol and drug dependencies. 

“We had clients who just needed people to go the extra mile for them. 

“In dealing with a wide spectrum of people at Moores, I was confronted with humanity - both my clients’ and my own. It helped me realise the privileges in my own life and it bought home law as a vocation,” she says.

When Judge Ryan returned to New Zealand, she was armed with both valuable experience and a newly acquired theology degree. 
She went to teach theology at the Catholic Institute of Theology at Auckland University. Her specialty was the First Testament, especially the prophets, and she is fascinated with Maori prophets.

“The fact that there is little written on [Maori prophets] as a whole is interesting. One day when I’m old and grey there may be a book about them,” she says.

After working for Burns Hart & Co, then Judith Collins & Associates, Judge Ryan went to hold a position at Crown Law for 11 years.

“There were no victories and no losses working for the state,” she says. “We were encouraged to place all evidence before the court, including material that may not have assisted the Crown and left it to the Court to make the decisions. For me, we were not zealously seeking convictions.”

From 2005 until her appointment to the District Court, Ms Ryan led the Youth and Family Court team at Meredith Connell.

“I love the more inquisitorial nature of the Youth Court. I like the fact that New Zealand Youth Courts deal with young people in a way, which is cutting edge. We can be internationally proud of what we do.

“The Youth Court is the ‘esoteric meets the visceral’,” she says. 

Christine Gordon SC, partner at Meredith Connell, speaks very highly of Judge Ryan.

“Claire is a person of outstanding character, integrity and intelligence. She is very loyal and uses her considerable talents well and to the benefit of others. Claire has been a pleasure to work with. We will miss her skills, legal knowledge and sense of humour,” she says.

Both time and dedication were also given to endeavours outside Judge Ryan’s career. 

She has been working at the Auckland Observatory for 14 years. As a member of the self-proclaimed “night riders” (evening educators) she has always been interested in the night sky and still teaches elements of astronomical education a few times a week to the public.  

She especially enjoys intertwining science with the spiritual and helping people to understand tatai aorangi (Maori astronomy).

“It’s a wonderful job. I grew up in the era when space exploration was beginning and have had a passion for it since. I have a particular interest in Maori astronomy and teaching others about Matariki – the background, context and stories are so exciting – and profound,” she says.

Judge Ryan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and as she was relatively young, the cancer was aggressive. 

“I am an assertive person myself, so I wasn’t surprised that my cells were too. I was given a 25% chance of surviving 10 years. I had six years of treatment. 

“I’m grateful to be alive,” she says, “and I am now in good health”.

After making it through a tough few years, Judge Ryan says she had an opportunity to share what she had learned from her experiences.
In 2004, she helped found the Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition (BCAC), established to educate the public and policy makers. 

“We were committed to improving access to treatment and helping people making informed choices about their care. We campaigned for public access to Herceptin which I see as one our of greatest achievements together with the publication of Step by Step, an information pack BCAC gives to New Zealanders diagnosed with breast cancer.  

“I spent time working for others with something that really resonated with me. 

“It was a very positive and transformative time of my life,” says Judge Ryan. She still supports people with breast cancer through their diagnoses and treatment.

BCAC chair Libby Burgess says that Judge Ryan’s legal mind was an incredibly valuable asset.

“We owe a huge debt to Claire for the body of impressive work she has done for BCAC and for her generosity both with her time and financially,” she says.

Judge Ryan has also always been interested in debating and has been a director of the World Schools Debating Championships and a member of the executive for many years, including chair for the last two years.

“It was a real opportunity to support young people both nationally and internationally. Debating teaches kids to think and speak clearly and coherently and challenges them to be aware of international issues. It breaks down barriers between nations and helps young people learn to be more open and tolerant,” she says.

Judge Ryan says she is feeling honoured and privileged yet daunted about becoming a Judge. 

“It’s wonderful that I have been given this opportunity to serve the community.”

This article was published in LawTalk 778, 11 August 2011, page 11.

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