Phillipa Gormly

Phillipa Gormly

P hillipa Gormly, barrister, one of three siblings at the NSW Bar, daughter of a Sydney silk Frank Gormly QC, the fourth of six close siblings, spouse, mother and grandmother, was admitted to the Bar twenty four years ago in 1996. She died 29 May this year at the age of 63. She had been a very sweet child and maintained throughout her life, the gentle belief, held with unbending conviction, that the world was a wonderful place. So, it came as a surprise to see an iron will and a steely personal discipline explode onto the scene to match the onset of Multiple Sclerosis.

Pip led a remarkably full life both 'before' and 'after' her diagnosis. She was a Loreto Kirribilli girl who left school to do economics at Sydney University, travel, socialise, work for Citibank as it then was, and to marry. She had four children while renovating houses in Annandale and Lindfield. She remained physically active taking her children skiing and supporting them in all their extracurricular activities.

After a marriage breakdown she continued to work and bring up her four children. At the same time she took up law part-time in the SAB course – completed it in 1993 –and met her future husband Alan Clark. They had some time together before the more serious onset of her disease and married four years after the diagnosis. At that stage she was still quite mobile, but skiing was coming to an end.

She worked as a solicitor for three years, an experience which she valued. She was admitted to the Bar in 1996 and only recently ceased holding a practising certificate. At the Bar she did a range of work appearing at some stage, in most jurisdictions. Her work started as commercial, but it expanded over time to cover some insolvency and bankruptcy, wills and estates, guardianship, family and discrimination work. Early appearances before the Teacher’s Disciplinary Tribunal and the Guardianship Board sparked an interest that in turn led to appointments between 2003 and 2013 as deputy chairperson in a variety of tribunal work dealing with optometrists, chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and psychologists.

She spoke of the reluctance of some people to brief her, being unsure of her needs. She believed in exposure to disability as an antidote to shyness of it and as a result, took pleasure in receiving a second brief from the same person. She was determined not to be defined by her disease. She enjoyed the work she received over a long period from the NSW Crown Solicitor’s Office.

At the end of a day in chambers or court, she would wheel herself down to Wynyard station, make the appropriate arrangements with the station staff and catch the train home to be met at Pymble by her husband. Eventually that independent commute had to end but, with the support of her husband and four fine children, she continued to work. She received consideration from the courts and tribunals she appeared in. She was ever grateful to her chambers, Garfield Barwick, Ground Floor Wentworth, Blackstone and Second Floor Selborne.

Phillipa was led by a number of silk in interesting appellate work. John Hislop SC as he then was, led her as his junior in the High Court on many occasions. All this time she was balancing work with being a mother to four children, a spouse and with a deteriorating condition. Her experience of working at the Bar from a wheelchair, was recorded in an interview with Rena Sofroniou in Bar News 2003. Asked about whether preconceptions were projected onto her as an MS sufferer in a wheelchair, she answered 'Certainly not here at the Bar. I feel at home here. I feel welcomed. I feel accepted and people are always willing to lend a hand if I need it, which I do often…'

She went on to say 'Certainly the MS is no reason for me to stop my work. It is possibly, probably, now as bad as its going to get. I’m not particularly bad for an MS sufferer – I’m just dramatic because I’m in a wheelchair, so people notice me.' Her eternally optimistic self-prognosis was incorrect, as she must have known. In the same interview she spoke of offers she made to her silk to carry their red bag on her lap. She told Rena it was no problem as she had no feeling in her legs anyway. She found this sort of thing amusing, but it was also an illustration of a mental attitude and a will to keep working, that kept her going for around 20 years more.

She and her husband Alan, with whom there was a SPAN mutually supportive relationship, travelled a great deal including after she became wheelchair bound. It was a big exercise for her and Alan. Her last trip was to Spain during which she was happy to be bounced around on cobbled lanes and roads. There were five other family members in the travelling troupe, all kept busy at different times, but especially her husband and her daughter Olivia. An earlier trip was a visit to our sister Jenny, then living in Malawi. At Pip’s insistence she was lifted, still in her wheelchair, into the rear of an open ute, strapped down and driven for hours over dirt roads in the backlots of Malawi. It rained for some part of the trip, a matter of indifference to her. Everything was an adventure.

Pip was quite politically active as an advocate for the disabled. She gave interviews, lobbied Tony Abbott and spoke with John Howard for support for the NDIS. She had been a long-term director of Living My Way Ltd, a member of the Bar’s Equal Opportunity Committee and a director of the NSW Multiple Sclerosis Society. In smaller ways she was like a dog with a bone. She and the late Phillip Selth, then Executive Director of the Bar, had numerous discussions to improve access issues and disabled toilet issues. She also worked with Michael Slattery QC then President of the NSW Bar Association. She wanted a re-build of a new concrete wheelchair ramp from footpath to road in King St outside the Supreme Court. He made a submission to Sydney City Council. We all expected a fight or a delay. In fact, the re-build was done within days of the Council receiving the submission. The large ramp in front of Wentworth Chambers was sometimes referred to as the Phillipa Gormly Private Ramp, she being the only barrister at the time in a wheelchair but, as we have all seen, many others have been grateful for it.

Phillipa and companion

Her efforts were recognised, including in 2015 with the award of life membership by the NSW Women Lawyers Association. She was delighted by that award.

Phillipa is survived by her four children and her five, soon to be seven, grandchildren. She took great interest, pleasure and pride in her family and in legal life. She is survived by her husband Alan Clark – a man loved and valued by the whole family – who has spent the last 25 years ensuring that Pip had the best life she could have.

Jeremy and Julian Gormly