Ethel Benjamin

The first woman to study law in Australasia and New Zealand's first female lawyer

Ethel Rebecca Benjamin was the first woman to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor in New Zealand, in 1897 at Dunedin.

Benjamin enrolled for LLB at the University of Otago. The university was the first in Australasia to permit women to study the law and Benjamin the first woman to be admitted to its law school.

She graduated in 1897 - a year after the Female Law Practitioners Act passed - and was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.

According to Te Ara, the Otago District Law Society objected to Benjamin's entry into their "previously exclusively male profession".

"Instances of discrimination by the society include her being granted only restricted access to the society's library, the attempt by society members in 1897 to impose on her an alternative dress code to the customary wig and gown, her exclusion from the society's annual Bar dinners, and the fact that she was offered little of the assistance younger members were traditionally given by established lawyers," Benjamin's Te Ara biography states.

The discrimination did not deter Benjamin, who established a successful practice.

On September 17, 1897, Benjamin represented a client for the recovery of a debt in court and that was said to be the first time that a female lawyer appeared as counsel in any case in the British Empire.

In 1899, Benjamin became the honorary solicitor for the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children.

A firm advocate of women's rights, Benjamin became involved in numerous court cases involving divorce, adoption and "wife abuse".

In 1907, she married Alfred De Costa and the pair moved to England, where the Benjamin family had relocated. She died in October 1943 after being hit by a car.