Saturday, June 6, 2015

People: Ada Emily Evans


Regular Byters will know that No 1 son, Thomas, has joined the fraternity of the wig and gown and is now a barrister. He will be a baby barrister, also known as a “reader”, for 12 months under the supervision of one or more suitably qualified and experienced barristers, who are known as “tutors”.

No 1 son, as a reader, has a small office, "the Readers’ Room", at Ada Evans Chambers. 

From the website of those chambers:

Ada Evans Chambers has almost 30 members of varying levels of seniority, including Queen’s Counsel. Each barrister is a sole practitioner, conducting individual practice as a specialist advocate and provider of advice and other legal services. 

Which brings me to the point of this post, a brief bio of Ada Evans, after whom the chambers are named.


Born Ada Emily Evans in 1872 in England, she was the youngest daughter of a foreman at a stoneworks. In 1883 at age 11 she migrated with her family to Sydney, attending Sydney Girls’ High School and the University of Sydney where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in 1895. Her intended career was teaching and, with her sister, she established a small private school, Cheltenham College, in Summer Hill but this came to an end by reason of ill health.

In 1881 the University of Sydney had resolved to allow equal education and opportunity to women “in complete equality with men.” 

University of Sydney, 1870's

University of Sydney, view from Parramatta Road, 1870's, 

 Vocalising equality is one thing; doing is another.

Some readers may be aware of a marvelous British production Bramwell, the story of a female doctor who establishes a free hospital in the East End of London in 1895 and of the prejudices she encounters in the male dominated medical profession.

The male dominated legal profession in Sydney in the late Victorian era was no different.

No doubt drawing inspiration from her mother's legal family, Ada determined to pursue a career in law, convinced that there was a need to counter the prejudices of an all male legal system.

In 1899 she enrolled in the University of Sydney Law School, despite the fact that there had been no female law graduate before her, no practising women lawyers and that as the law stood, she would have no right to practise, even if she did graduate. 

It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the sheer unfairness, hostility and discriminatory attitudes of those times when being looked at through 21st century eyes and with 21st century attitudes. 

Even when I was studying contract law, married women were grouped in the category of “abnormal” legal persons with “lunatics and infants” (the latter being anyone under 18), on the basis that special laws applied to married women in respect of husbands’ liability for their debts.

Back in 1881 when the University opened its educational doors, the Bulletin opined that “a girl who has received a higher education is generally a prig or a poseur.”

Ada’s enrolment, in 1899, went through only because the dean, Professor Pitt Cobbett, was on leave. 


He most certainly would have blocked the enrolment. When he returned from leave, he met with her and advised her that she would find medicine more suitable insofar as she did not have the physique for law. Ada declined and carried on with law, no doubt drawing the ire of her male peers, lecturers and admitted lawyers, much as Bramwell did in her TV series.

An application to the Supreme Court to be registered as a student-at-law was rejected in that the rules only provided for “persons” to be admitted as barristers and solicitors, judicial authority holding that “persons” meant “males”. The rules of practice legislation did not actually disqualify women from becoming lawyers, the common law at the time held that legislation had to specifically confer rights or privileges on women for it to apply to them in that women were not included in the definition of persons.

She persevered, graduating in 1902, the first female law graduate in Australia.


An application to practise law was again refused on the same basis as before, a situation that also existed in England, thereby also preventing her from practising law there.

Unable to practise, she and her brother purchased a property , Kurkulla, at Bowral and turned the 6 hectares into a self supporting farm, not only for herself but also for several family members.

Kurkulla as it looks today


She did not, however, give up on her dream of practising law. She campaigned to have the law changed and for women to be put on an equal footing with men. Such campaigns were also conducted in other States and in the UK.

High Court Justice Mary Gaudron has quoted from an anonymous author of a 1920 English book Concerning Solicitors:

It is difficult to understand why up to now there have been female surgeons, doctors and oculists in this country and female lawyers in many other countries, but no female lawyers in the United Kingdom. Clearly, both branches of the law offer as excellent an opening for the same type of celibate woman with exceptional talent as any other profession. 
The truth is that the differences between the sexes have been grossly exaggerated by priests, journalists and fools generally, and there can be no doubt that at least one per cent of women are quite as intelligent as any man." 
http://www.hcourt.gov.au/assets/publications/speeches/former-justices/gaudronj/gaudronj_wlasp.htm

In 1918 NSW passed the Women’s Legal Status Act, finally enabling Ada Evans to register as a student at law. Ada could now be enrolled but could not be admitted until she had served 2 years as a student-at-law. In 1921 she was finally admitted, the first woman admitted to the NSW Bar. She declined a brief that was immediately offered, citing the length of time that had elapsed since her graduation.

Similar legislation had been passed in New Zealand in 1896; in Victoria in 1903; in Tasmania in 1904; in Queensland in 1905 and in South Australia in 1911. It was passed in Western Australia in 1923.

Ada Evans died at Kurkulla on 27 December 1947 and was cremated in Sydney.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography:

. . . intelligent, confident and compassionate, Ada Evans was well equipped to take her place as a member of the legal profession, but was frustrated in doing so by the law itself. Like many pioneers she was unable to reap the reward of her labours, but as Professor W. Jethro Brown had predicted when encouraging her to persevere with her legal studies, her reward would be 'the glory of the pioneer'. 
 http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evans-ada-emily-6118

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