The Glory of the Pioneer
Ada Emily Evans (1872 –1947) was the first female law graduate in Australia and the first female appointed to the New South Wales Bar.
Evans migrated with her family to Sydney in 1883 where she attended Sydney Girls High School. She began her tertiary education at the University of Sydney graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1895. Convinced there was a need for women trained in the law to counter the prejudice of a male dominated profession she enrolled at the University of Sydney Law School in 1899. The Dean of the Law School was on leave at the time and her enrolment was accepted in his absence. On his return, and in an obvious attempt to steer her away from the profession, he declared to Evans “that she did not have the physique for law and would find medicine more suitable”. Evans persevered.
As was necessary at that time, Evans attempted registration as a student-at-law with the Supreme Court of New South Wales. This was rejected. She would learn that, although women were not specifically disqualified from becoming lawyers, the common law at the time held that unless legislation specifically conferred rights or privileges on women, it did not apply to them, for women were not included in the definition of persons. Evans persevered.
Evans completed her studies and in December 1902 she became the first woman in Australia awarded a Bachelor of Laws. Evans then applied for admission to the New South Wales Bar to practise as a barrister, but again her application was rejected on the basis of her sex. Never one to go quietly, Evans persevered.
She fought on with the support of women’s organisations campaigning for legislative change, specifically the rights of women to practise law and sixteen years after Evans received her LLB the Parliament of New South Wales, she buckled and passed the Women’s Legal Status Act 1918. Evans could finally register as a student-at-law. On 12 May 1921, Ada Emily Evans became the first woman admitted to the New South Wales Bar.
In 1998, Sydney barrister Michael Maxwell opened a boutique barristers chambers in downtown Sydney named in her honour. The chambers were officially opened on 20 November 1998 by the Honourable Justice Mary Gaudron, the first female justice of the High Court of Australia.