When John Pascoe was sworn in as Chief Justice of the Family Court two weeks ago, he chose the occasion to publicly reveal his battle with an eye problem that has left him “technically blind” at periods over the past 10 years.
The Chief Justice told a stunned courtroom that the day before the ceremony he had been forced into emergency surgery when his condition, which involves the build-up of fluid in his pupils, suddenly worsened.
He said he received a medical clearance to attend the ceremony only a few hours before it began on October 20 in Sydney.
He then made light of his condition: “I am reminded today of the goddess Justitia and blind justice. However, I can assure you that, although I am not seeing particularly well today, I will not follow her dress code, and I shall remain fully robed.”
Chief Justice Pascoe said his “stressful” problem had been managed with the help of his doctors, court staff and Vision Australia. They had also helped keep others in the dark after the problems started in 2007. With an associate guiding him around town, he would arrive early at lunch appointments.
“He would tell what to order and then leave,” the judge said. “So, I could look at the menu, nod wisely and order whatever he told me I would be eating that day.”
The Chief Justice has since declined to elaborate on the nature of his condition. He also passed on whether he had talked to Attorney-General George Brandis ahead of his appointment on October 10. Senator Brandis declined to comment.
However, Chief Justice Pascoe offered a short, written statement, saying that to date his condition had “not interfered with my capacity to carry out my role”. “In common with many Australians who suffer from a disability, it’s necessary to work harder and to concentrate on the positives,” he said.
Chief Justice Pascoe’s appointment raised eyebrows because he has done little family law judicial work in recent years and has only 12 months until he is forced to retire from the bench on his 70th birthday (December 10, 2018).
The Family Court is facing a period of substantial reform in that time. Senator Brandis told the ceremony that the Chief Justice and his replacement as chief judge of the Federal Circuit Court, Will Altstergren QC, had been chosen with those changes in mind.
Chief Justice Pascoe, a former chief executive of George Weston Foods and chief judge of the Federal Circuit Court since 2004, said the emergence of his disability had spurred him to expose the evils of child trafficking and exploitation “for as long as I could see”.
“I thought I would see you all much better today,” he said, “but I have a habit of making the best of things … I first encountered eye problems 10 years ago, and I spent a period where I was technically blind. I was able to keep working seamlessly and most people in fact did not know that I could not see.”
Most present in Court 21A of the Queens Square complex — the guest list included Senator Brandis and leaders of the legal profession — were none the wiser until he arrived in court.
After the court was called to order, the Chief Justice’s deputy, Justice Stephen Thackray, announced that he was presiding over the ceremony because of Chief Justice Pascoe’s operation and that “his ability to read has been temporarily affected”. It meant Chief Justice Pascoe recited his oath after Justice Thackray, instead of reading it from a paper.