A pioneering spirit

Working to bring Monash University its largest-ever bequest from a former student has let two Monash Law alumni reconnect with their alma mater and celebrate the legacy of a remarkable woman.

BY JAMES WONG

For someone who had such a profound impact on the field to which she dedicated her life, Francine McNiff chose remarkably understated words with which to leave this world.

With her typically dry sense of humour, she instructed her obituary to read: “I have ceased to exist.”

But these humble and definitive words betray a remarkable woman whose legacy and memory will live on through a transformative gift.

In the largest-ever bequest to Monash by one of our alumni, Francine left Monash $2 million to establish the Francine V. McNiff Chair in Criminal Jurisprudence, and a further $1.72 million towards the Francine V. McNiff Scholarship Fund for graduate studies in criminology.

Her gift will grow the study of an area she worked tirelessly to advance during her lifetime, and was brought to Monash by two fellow alumni, father and son Ron and Brett Tait.

McNiff studied at Monash in the earliest days of the law faculty, and spent the first decade of her career as a lecturer at Monash. A true pioneer and reformist, she became the first female judicial officer in the state of Victoria when she was named a magistrate of the Children’s Court in 1983. She also spent many years as a criminal law barrister working to help society’s most vulnerable.

Friends and colleagues describe McNiff as a fierce advocate for justice and the sharpest of legal minds.

“It should always be remembered that she was first and foremost a lady of the law. She was one of the first wave of women to take on the profession,” says friend Peter Svensson. “When Francine became the first judicial officer in Victoria she took it dreadfully seriously. Her long tresses of red auburn hair were always immaculately presented, and her magistrates wig perched on the top as if it had always belonged there.

“But she found the world of a magistrate extremely formal and set about to break down the rigid structures of court behaviour. I recall the time she broke tradition and asked a young child witness in her courtroom to come up and sit next to her at the bench. She had a teddy bear there for that very purpose.”

McNiff also acted as a mentor to young lawyers, including fellow Monash graduate Brett Tait (BCom 1994, LLB 1996); it was him and his father, Ron (BJuris 1968, LLB, 1969), who were the executors of McNiff’s estate and worked together to bring her gift to Monash.

She was a mentor in the beginning. She taught me a lot about court craft. I would sit, learn, watch, listen, discuss and absorb as much as I could.

"I got to know her well by accident – in the true sense of the word. A motorcycle accident left me unemployable for a while, so I worked with Dad, who told me to go and follow Francine around.

“She called me Broken Wing. Come along, Broken Wing, she would say,” Brett recalled.

Brett Tait is now following Francine’s example and is a mentor in Monash University’s Betty Amsden AO Mentor Leaders program.

Working to bring McNiff’s bequest to Monash has led both Brett and Ron to reconnect with the University, and realise the impact a bequest can have.

“One of the really, really positive things that has come out of it, is that both of us, and especially me, because it’s been 50 or so years since I started, have reconnected with Monash University,” Ron said.

“I think if alumni were aware of how wonderful Monash is now, and could reconnect with Monash, [they could] give some thought about doing what Francine did and making a bequest in their will. It doesn’t matter how much it is. Think about Monash, think about what a bequest could do.”

As a scholar, magistrate and barrister, McNiff dedicated her life to the law, but the value of education never left her, and her bequest will bring the gift of a legal education to those who will continue her pioneering work.

“The scholarship fund will provide access to university studies for people who would otherwise not be able to pursue a tertiary career in that field,” says Brett. “From that I think we’ll see minds coming into the field that would otherwise clearly not have been able to enter it, and give things back to criminal justice that may very well have gone undiscovered.

“[Francine] valued education. That’s where she wanted to give her money to. She saw education as a way that people could change the direction of their life and also give back to the community.”

When asked to reflect on McNiff’s last words – “I have ceased to exist” – and the legacy she’ll leave, Ron said his friend would have wondered what all the fuss was about.

“I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about her own self-aggrandisement, that wasn’t Francine.

“But when you think about it, she hasn’t [ceased to exist]. Quite the contrary. With these magnificent bequests, she will live on for a long, long time.”