Key Points:

The extensive gallery of photographs in Justice Lowell Goddard's chambers is a potted history of women in New Zealand's legal system.

There is the 1988 photograph of her with her close friend Dame Sian Elias, now the Chief Justice, the day they made history and became QCs. Nearby is a photograph of Dame Silvia Cartwright, whom she assisted as senior counsel on the cervical cancer inquiry, taken on the day Dame Silvia was elevated to the bench.

Then there is the photograph of Justice Goddard with her daughter, Rebecca Scott, taken the day Rebecca was admitted to the bar.

Justice Goddard has now made another mark on the legal landscape by being appointed to head the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) - not that she is keen to have her new job described as another breakthrough for women in a male-dominated profession.

"That's not a big deal any more ... I don't see it as a first for women. I think it's simply a matter of being a suitable person in the right place at the right time."

Justice Goddard's peers esteem her professionalism in a court room, her empathy with a jury and her command of criminal law. Commentators agree that she is more than suitable for the PCA job; she is perfect for it.

One senior legal figure said no one was better-equipped than Justice Goddard for such an important constitutional role, and politicians of all stripes hailed her appointment as ideal to ensure public confidence in the body that scrutinises how the police perform their duties.

Her predecessor as head of the PCA, Judge Ian Borrin, also gave Justice Goddard a ringing endorsement, telling the Press she was a superb appointment.

Justice Goddard cuts an imposing figure on the bench, her glasses sliding down her nose so she can gaze intently over them at a lawyer or a witness.

She is proud of her Maori heritage - her ancestry is Ngati Kahungunu - and in her desk drawer she has a photograph of her great-great-grandmother, with a splendid moko, sitting beside her husband.

Privately, friends say, Justice Goddard is warm and compassionate and those aspects of her personality shine through brightly when the conversation turns to her main hobby, horses.

A broad smile appears, and her reminiscences are punctuated with laughter.

She is a former rider, and Rebecca was an equestrian rival of Catriona Williams, who became a tetraplegic after a 2002 riding accident.

After that injury the Catwalk charity was set up to raise money for research into a cure for spinal injuries. Justice Goddard became a trustee.

"Equestrian sport, particularly eventing, which is our particular interest, is very high-risk. It doesn't mean to say you don't love and support the sport, but it means you really need to be in there supporting any casualties of the sport as well. Catwalk is a fantastic charity and it is really going places."

Justice Goddard's husband, Chris Hodson, QC, is vice-president of the International Equestrian Federation.

The couple have four children and seven grandchildren between them.

The judge's passion for horses is discreetly on show in her chambers. A framed picture of a horse hangs above her computer and an old horse-hair judicial wig sits beside the machine. Hidden to one side behind a bookcase hangs a picture of Heloise, a Towkay mare bred and owned by Justice Goddard, which won two races.

"She's there whenever I need to look at a horse," Justice Goddard says.

She raced her first horse in partnership with Dame Sian and jokes that since she moved to the High Court, the conversation has turned from rugby and cricket to horse-racing.

But speak of the law and Justice Goddard is thoughtful and business-like. As with many judges, the second she takes to marshal her thoughts before explaining something is obvious.

She is typically well prepared for the Herald's visit to her chambers. Her unfinished final judgment has been put to one side, replaced by a folder full of notes, briefings and reports on the PCA.

Justice Goddard, 59, says her new job is a career move, not a retirement option. It's a fresh challenge and one she feels ready for after 11 years as a High Court judge and nine years sitting on the criminal division of the Court of Appeal.

Several of her cases have been high-profile. In 2002, she imposed what was then a record sentence, life with a minimum non-parole period of 28 years, on Masterton man Bruce Howse for murdering his stepdaughters Saleil Aplin and Olympia Jetson.

That non-parole period was later reduced to 25 years.

Sentencing is acknowledged universally by judges as the most difficult part of their job, and Justice Goddard says it is a very inexact science.

When deciding what sentence to impose, she says, judges try to find sentences which suit the facts of the case, examine the sentences in earlier cases, assess the case themselves, take into account probation and victim impact reports and lawyers' submissions ... then give it their best shot.

"You don't get used to the violence or the terrible happenings in the terms of being desensitised to them," she says.

"Let me make that quite clear; no judge is like that. No judge worth their salt would be like that, but your training from when you enter law school and certainly when you leave law school and start practising in the courts fits you for being able to objectively assess even the most difficult and prurient details and being able to assess those in a non-partisan way."

But even so poised a jurist as Justice Goddard struggles for the right words when a 2004 Nelson murder trial over which she presided is raised.

In that case, a jury of eight women and four men had to decide whether a father had intended to cause the death of his severely brain-damaged daughter when he covered her face with his hand until she stopped breathing.

After an intensely emotional trial, the jury acquitted the father - a verdict which caused extensive debate.

"It is a professional discipline that you bring yourself to, and you must bring yourself to, but in some cases it is ... " - Justice Goddard pauses - " ... very difficult and it requires enormous emotional strength to just maintain that even keel, which you must do.

"You know you are the judge and you must be dispassionate and maintain your strength and equanimity throughout the trial, because if you don't it is going to be very difficult for everybody else to do so.

"That was a highly emotionally charged case. Very harrowing."

For the past 11 years, Justice Goddard has been what is termed a judge of first instance, hearing a wide variety of cases as a High Court judge based in Wellington.

In her new role as the Police Complaints Authority, she will become a judge of last instance.

In many cases the PCA considers, the courts, the media, the general public and the police themselves will have formed opinions before Justice Goddard makes her decision on whether police acted appropriately or not.

The PCA investigates incidents involving death or serious bodily harm in which the police are involved, so high-profile cases such as the recent police wounding of convicted murderer Graeme Burton will eventually end up on her desk.

The authority also receives about 3000 complaints a year against the police, and takes many to the point of a formal investigation.

However, there is a backlog of more than 800 complaints and the PCA has received a budget boost to deal with them. A bill to revamp and expand the PCA is expected to come before Parliament this year.

Following her work on the cervical cancer inquiry and as a defence lawyer in high-profile Auckland cases such as the 1988 machete murder of David Fuko and a 1989 assault case involving Maori activist Titewhai Harawira at Carrington Hospital, Justice Goddard joined Crown Law as head of its criminal team.

She had an early involvement with the PCA, assisting its first head, Sir Peter Quilliam, in the case of a young man who died in controversial circumstances after a struggle with a police officer.

"I've taken an interest in it [the authority] ever since, and I spoke with Sir Rodney Gallen when he did his report.

Sir Rodney reported on the PCA in 2000, after the police shooting of Waitara man Stephen Wallace.

"I think we are very lucky in New Zealand with our police force and the leadership of our police force, and have always believed that," Justice Goddard said.

"But in an institution as large as the police and with the sort of work it is undertaking in the community, there are bound to be areas of friction and there are bound to be complaints.

"Having those independently overseen is vital."