Key Points:

A pioneering New Zealand lawyer has been awarded one of the country's highest honours.

Wellingtonian Alison Quentin-Baxter, 77, has been made a Distinguished Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to the law.

Mrs Quentin-Baxter, who began her career in 1952, said she was surprised and very appreciative of the honour.

In her time as a lawyer she helped to develop the constitutional law of fledgling Pacific nations such as Niue and Fiji. In 1974, she was part of the New Zealand legal team at the International Court of Justice which brought a case against France for its nuclear tests in the Pacific.

She lectured at Victoria University and was the director of the New Zealand Law Commission for the first eight years of its existence.

Mrs Quentin-Baxter said when she had studied law at what was then Auckland University College, there had been few other female students. But she was always treated as an equal by male students and professors - she was made chairman of the Law Students Society, the first woman to hold the position.

Mrs Quentin-Baxter said she especially enjoyed the times she was able to work with her late husband, Professor Quentin Quentin-Baxter. They worked together in Niue, where the professor was a legal adviser to the island's Assembly before it became a self-governing nation.

Mrs Quentin-Baxter later worked at the Niue Public Service Commission and advised the Fiji Constitution Review Commission.

Policy - how legislation functions in real life - was always the area she preferred to work in, she said.

"It's the functioning of law in the lives of individuals and communities, which is the really interesting and challenging thing."