Canterbury Law Review
Last Updated: 29 April 2013
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ETHEL BENJAMIN, NEW ZEALAND'S FIRST WOMAN LAWYER
Victoria University Press for the Law Foundation of New Zealand, xi plus 260pp, 2009, rrp $50
Reviewed by Professor Jeremy Finn, School of Law, University of Canterbury
The outlines of Ethel Benjamin's career are fairly well known and have been
the subject of discussion on a range of books and articles.
enormously to our understanding of Benjamin's career and the circumstances in
which she practised
The most interesting chapters in the book are those dealing with Benjamin's practice in what we may now loosely call family law — separations, divorces, maintenance and adoptions. November has taken Benjamin's business correspondence and turned it into a fascinating and invaluable account of her practice — much of it done without hope of fee or reward — which gives an unprecedented insight into the social realities of the period. This is essential reading for all legal and social historians of the period. There is also an interesting chapter on other aspects of Benjamin's practice which shows a constant interplay between 'legal' activities and property management for clients and Benjamin's own entrepreneurial ventures. Unfortunately, we have no contemporary accounts of legal practice with which we can compare this, so we do not know whether Benjamin was unusual in bolstering her practice in this way.
The other major element of Benjamin's practice, which became integrated into general business affairs, was to deal with liquor licensing, where Benjamin was heavily involved both as legal practitioner and, later, as owner or part owner of hotels. As November comments, it may seem unusual that a generally progressive liberal such as Benjamin would be linked to the liquor interest, but it seems likely that financial considerations, possibly as well as professional obligations, would have made it difficult for Benjamin to turn down the lucrative business that came her way. We may also speculate that, as a Jew, Benjamin felt uncomfortable with the evangelical Christian basis for the temperance movement with which she contended on behalf of her clients.
The discussion of Benjamin's involvement as a hotel owner never quite manages to explain whether it was financial success as a lawyer that in that enabled her to invest in hotels, or whether investment in hotels subsidised her practice. Curiously, it is in this discussion, with its excerpts from letters to hotel managers and business associates, that Benjamin comes most alive as a person. It is a feature of the book that although we know much about what she did, we know relatively little of her private life and habits.
November's discussion of Ethel Benjamin's career in New Zealand is rounded off with an account of her, perhaps very surprising, decision to abandon her practice in Dunedin and operate a catering business at the Christchurch exhibition of 1906-07 before briefly moving to Wellington and then going overseas. It would be interesting to know what caused the change of scene; unfortunately it is one of several questions about Benjamin which the historical record does not allow the author to answer.
The book is augmented by a splendid final chapter or epilogue which describes the careers of several other early Otago women lawyers - Marion Thompson, Margaret Mackay, Judith Mayhew Jonas, Sylvia Cartwright and Judith Medlicott.
There are several minor mistakes in the text. Some arise from a repetition of errors in earlier publications, such as the statement that New Zealand was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to enact adoption legislation. That distinction actually belongs to the province of New Brunswick, which legislated for adoption in 1873, some eight years before New Zealand. More pertinently, but excusably, the author repeats the standard received version that Ethel Benjamin was the first female law student in New Zealand. This is not so. The records of the University of New Zealand show that Mary M O'Brien of Auckland College, was credited with passes in several legal subjects in 1891. Other errors should not have made it past either author or editor, such as the assertion on page 115 that Ashburton was an Otago electorate, or that supplies for Ethel Benjamin's catering operation at the Christchurch exhibition could be sourced from 'nearby Timaru'.
Despite these minor flaws, the book is an invaluable contribution to our legal history. November is to be commended for her writing; Victoria University Press should be congratulated on the elegant volume they have produced, and readers must also be grateful to the New Zealand Law Foundation for assisting with its publication.