History

In 1896, the Female Law Practitioners Act was passed. This piece of legislation enabled woman to practise law in New Zealand.

On 10 May 1897 Ethel Benjamin was the first woman to be admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court she went on to become the first woman in the British Empire to appear as counsel in Court.

Ethel Benjamin was a trailblazer for woman practitioners and every year the New Zealand law foundation awards a scholarship in her honour.

In 2014 just under 46% of lawyers are female (source - NZLS Law TalkSnapshot of Profession February 2014)

Today there are womens lawyer groups in all major centres. However, this has only been a relatively recent (historically speaking) creation.

In the 1980s women lawyers in Christchurch were largely unrepresented at every level. The prevailing attitude throughout the province was that women lawyers were one and the same as their male counterparts. For females practising in the area at the time there were few women at senior level to whom one could turn to for mentoring, let alone support, or to have as a role model.

Whilst womens associations were successfully being set up in all other major centres, two attempts by Christchurch lawyers Lizzie Riddiford and Fiona Bolwell in the early 1980s to set up a womens association in Christchurch were unsuccessful.

A womens organisation was not widely supported and in fact there was wide spread opposition to the establishment of such an organisation. The regional view was that such organisations were separatist, destructive and unnecessary.

In late 1989, four women lawyers, Maylene Lai, Michelle Slatter, Carolyn Risk and Ruth Buddicom formed a group to strategise how they could achieve the successful establishment of a womens legal association. Given the two prior failures to set up a womens organisation the group knew that they had to succeed in this attempt otherwise risk any chance of a womens organisation in Christchurch from ever coming to fruition.

The group undertook a number of strategies; the first was to keep their plans confidential until they had all their ducks in a row. The second was to understand the experiences of Lizzie and Fiona and identify the reasons for their lack of success and learn from them. The next was to identify what they wanted from an association.

In early 1990, the woman decided to increase their core numbers. They identified the need to include law students and recruited Christine Hickey. They were also conscious of the need to have a representative for newly admitted practitioners and recruited Kathryn Dalziel.

The group went on to obtain support from outside the region. Support came from all the other womens lawyers groups, Dame Sylvia Cartwright who at the time was the Chief District Court Judge, Margaret Wilson who was at the time in the Office of the Prime Minister and Carolyn Bull who at the time was the Human Rights Commissioner.

Womens Affairs and the Womens Legal Resource Project group also lent their support.

The group also obtained support from a number of others, including Ruth Richardson (MP), Pip Muir and Denise Bates (senior woman lawyers in Auckland and members of the Auckland Womens Legal Association) and Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

A meeting was organised where a motion would be put to form the Canterbury Womens Legal Association (CWLA) as an incorporated society and a constitution was prepared.

They received little assistance from the Canterbury District Law Society and had to rely on their own knowledge to identify women in the profession and had to engage in follow up enquiries to ensure that many of the law firms in the region had passed on the relevant information to their female employees.

Two days before the scheduled meeting, the Ministry of Women Affairs made a public announcement about the fact that there was not a womens group in Christchurch and how that reflected prejudice against women. Media comments were made by senior members of the local profession (including women) who felt that it was unnecessary. That publicity had the potential to be a fatal blow to the groups effort but determined with the strategy they had put in place for the meeting they were successful in forming the CWLA.

Today, the CWLA is supported by many of the regions law firms and the New Zealand Law Society.