New Zealand Law Society - 1897: Three events that helped shape our profession

1897: Three events that helped shape our profession

This article is over 3 years old. More recent information on this subject may exist.

26 March 1897, Sir Āpirana Ngata becomes first Māori lawyer.
3 May 1897, Walter Scott Reid elected as first President of the New Zealand Law Society.
10 May 1897, Ethel Benjamin becomes NZ’s first woman lawyer.

The distinguished leader: Sir Āpirana Ngata

By Geoff Adlam

On 26 March 1897 Āpirana Turupa Ngata was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court (now High Court) in Auckland. He was the first Māori to become a lawyer and was to go on to become one of New Zealand’s most respected citizens.

Apirana Ngata
Sir Apirana Ngata

Born at Te Araroa on the East Coast on 3 July 1874, his hapū included Te Whānau-a-Te Ao, Ngati Rangi, Te Whānau-a-Karuai and Ngati Rakairoa. His father, Paratene Ngata, was a Native Land Court assessor and his mother, Katerina Naki. The young Āpirana spent some time living with his father’s great-uncle Rapata Wahawaha, an influential Ngāti Porou leader.

After attending Te Aute College he matriculated with high marks which gained him a Te Makarini Scholarship enabling him to study at Canterbury University College. He studied arts and law, completing a BA in political science in 1893 and becoming the first Māori to gain a university degree.

Leaving Canterbury, Āpirana Ngata moved to Auckland when he became articled to the law firm Devore and Cooper. Theophilus Cooper, who was to move his admission to the bar, was one of New Zealand’s leading counsel and was appointed to the Supreme Court bench in February 1901 and knighted in 1921.

His law studies continued, and in November 1896 he became the first Māori to complete an LLB (and the first New Zealander to complete two university degrees). The LLB was conferred at the University of Auckland on 27 February 1897.

Admission to the bar

One month later he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor, on 26 March, at the Auckland Supreme Court by Justice Edward Conolly on the application of Theophilus Cooper.

The admission of the first Māori lawyer was covered widely in New Zealand’s newspapers. The report in the New Zealand Times of 27 March 1897 headed “The First Maori Barrister” was typical: “The first Maori admitted to the legal profession in New Zealand is Apirana Turapa Ngata, BA, LLB, who was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court today at the Chamber sittings by Mr Justice Conolly. Mr Theo Cooper applied that Ngata might be granted admission to the Bar, saying that he had passed the necessary examination, and that he was the first full-blooded Maori who had yet qualified as a barrister and solicitor.

“His Honor, in granting the application for admission, said Ngata showed what the native race was capable of.” This was followed with a summary of his career to date.

A successful legal career was there for the taking. However, his admission as a lawyer was also one of his last actions as a practising member of the legal profession. He did not enter legal practice. Instead, he used his skills and the contacts he had made in the Māori and Pākehā worlds, and his knowledge of the political and justice systems, to become a highly successful land reformer, politician, cabinet minister, scholar and leader.

“As a qualified lawyer his mana rose enormously among Māori. From 1899 he was sought after for hui throughout the country, and numerous articles by him appeared in Māori newspapers publicising his ideas for social and economic reform and discussing the place of Māoritanga in the modern world,” says his biography by MPK Sorrenson in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Knighted in 1927, Sir Āpirana, was an MP from 1905 to 1943, and from 1928 to 1934 he was the Minister of Native Affairs. Throughout his career he was an influential participant in preparing and promoting legislation to increase Māori legal rights and to reform the management of Māori land. He died on 14 July 1950.

Celebrating his achievements

In a statement to mark the anniversary of Sir Āpirana’s admission, the New Zealand Law Society and Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa (the Māori Law Society) said his admission is something all New Zealanders can celebrate.

“Sir Āpirana was one of most influential people of his time. He was a renowned Māori leader, an immensely influential figure in Māori land reform and development, a politician and Cabinet Minister, and a scholar. He is one of the very select group of national heroes we have chosen to commemorate on our currency. I am proud that he was also a member of the legal profession,” says New Zealand Law Society President Kathryn Beck.

Te Hunga Roia Māori o Aotearoa (THRM) Co-President Ophir Cassidy says Sir Āpirana was a great leader and visionary not only for his people of Ngāti Porou but for the Māori people.

“His vision is encapsulated in his well-known proverb

‘E tipu e rea, Ko tō ringa ki nga rākau a te Pākehā, Hei ora mō te tinana, Ko tō ngākau ki ngā tāonga a ō tipuna Māori, Hei tikitiki mō tō māhuna’

‘Grow and branch forth tender youth, Take on and use the tools of the Pākehā, For the sustenance of your wellbeing, Your heart to the treasures of your ancestors, To wear as an adornment/plume for your head’.

“Some 120 years later, THRM reflects on the words of Sir Āpirana Turupa Ngata and continues to encourage Māori youth to take on the challenge of entering the legal profession – and grasping the tools (while remaining steadfast to the practices and values of our people) to become advocates for the well-being, sustenance and future of our Māori people,” she says.

The inaugural president: Walter Reid

By Craig Stephen

On 3 May 1897 Walter Scott Reid was elected as the first President of the New Zealand Law Society. As Solicitor-General, Reid would today be viewed as an in-house lawyer and 120 years and 29 Presidents later he is still the only in-house lawyer to have held the role. Reid’s election also marked an important turning point in the influence and direction of the organised legal profession.

Walter Scott Reid
Walter Scott Reid

Despite having been legally constituted in 1869, the Law Society did not function as a truly national organisation until many years later, and 18 years after its formation it actually got round to electing a president.

On 27 July 1869, FD Fenton, the Chief Judge of the Native Land Court introduced into the Legislative Council a bill entitled “An Act to incorporate the Barristers and Solicitors of New Zealand under the style of The New Zealand Law Society.” (Portrait of a Profession, 1969, edited by Robin Cooke).

The object of this Act was, according to Mr Fenton, so that barristers and solicitors could manage their own affairs, and to prevent the admission of those who would not be permitted to practise in their own countries.

Opposition from Auckland

There was opposition from lawyers in Auckland, angry that they had not been properly consulted, but enough support elsewhere to sustain what was then a loosely-formed organisation.

Following some false starts, the first conference was held in Wellington in November 1892. In 1896 the Law Practitioners and New Zealand Law Society Acts Amendment Act 1896 was passed. The Solicitor-General, Walter Scott Reid, was appointed president on 3 May 1897, with HD Bell (aka Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell) his vice-president.

Reid, who held the role of Solicitor-General for 25 years – the longest tenure ever – was highly respected as an expert law draftsman and constitutional lawyer.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1839. His father was an Army officer and was sent to Tasmania in 1852 with his family. After completing his schooling Reid worked for the Launceston law firm of Douglas & Dawes and qualified as a barrister and solicitor on 14 October 1862. He married Mary Jane Hume and the couple had two sons and a daughter.

Reid and his own family moved to New Zealand in 1865, and he initially practised as a lawyer in Wellington. In early 1866 he moved to Invercargill on his appointment as Registrar of the Supreme Court, Southland before moving to Hokitika to practise in partnership with CE Button.

Reid began a career in the Crown Law Office as assistant law officer in 1872; in 1875 he became the first non-political holder and New Zealand’s second Solicitor-General.

Constitutional law authority

One of his first tasks as Solicitor-General was to draft the Abolition of Provinces Act 1875 and he came to be recognised as an authority on constitutional law. As a commissioner with Justice Johnson, under the Revision of Statutes Act 1879, he was jointly responsible for the 1880 consolidation of existing New Zealand statutes and the adaptation of the Criminal Code, eventually enacted in 1893.

In 1882 Reid was a member of the Judicature Commission which prepared the code of civil procedure. He also chaired the Boards of the Public Trust Office and the Government Insurance Department.

After his wife Mary died, Reid married New Plymouth-born Emma Halse in 1895.

He was active in the affairs of the Wellington District Law Society and became president in 1893. Four years later he was elected in the same position at the New Zealand Law Society.

His term as President was marked by some uncertainty as to the powers and strength of the Law Society, in particular there was a shortage of money. Portrait of a Profession notes there were doubts “as to whether the Society’s constitution was sound and whether those elected to office had been validly appointed. One of the difficulties apparently felt was that the first meeting may not have been properly convened, there having been no President at the time.”

He retired as Solicitor-General in November 1900, and also resigned from the Council of the Wellington District Law Society. Bell replaced him as NZLS president early in 1901.

Farewell from the profession

Reid’s farewell ceremony and presentation from the legal profession was held in the Supreme Court in Wellington on 10 January 1901. The Evening Post reported that he was presented with an illuminated address which “expressed appreciation of Mr Reid’s many eminent services to the colony and the legal profession; noted his firm grasp of legal principles, as well as his profound knowledge of constitutional law.”

The Cyclopedia of New Zealand said he was considered “by the highest legal authorities to be the best constitutional lawyer in the Colony since the death of Sir Frederick Whitaker.”

Reid was an elder of the Presbyterian Church and a founder of the Academy of Fine Arts, but there is no evidence of him being involved in other organisations. He was described in Portrait of a Profession as a “rock-like character who conscientiously carried out the duties of his office as he saw fit.”

After retiring Reid was involved with the Chief Justice and the Solicitor-General in working on the Consolidation of Statutes, which finally occurred in 1908. In 1905 he was appointed chairman of the Land Commission.

Reid died in Wellington on 31 January 1920 aged 81. It was reported that he had been in ill health for a considerable time before his death and he had been confined to bed for many months.

The determined pioneer: Ethel Benjamin

By Angharad O’Flynn

On 10 May 2017 it will be 120 years since New Zealand’s first woman lawyer, Ethel Benjamin, was admitted to the bar. The acceptance of women in the law has come a long way since Miss Benjamin obtained the right to practice after her admission to the previously exclusively male legal profession.

Ethel Benjamin
Ethel Benjamin

Ethel Rebecca Benjamin was born on 19 January 1875 and was the eldest child of Henry and Elizabeth Benjamin. Not much is known about her pre-university days but what is known is that she sparked not only a debate over whether women were mentally capable of working in traditionally men-only professions, like law, but that they deserved the equal treatment, education and work opportunities that men were unquestionably granted.

During the colonial era, it was a rebellious act for a woman to want higher education and professional employment – or even gender equality – and with the denial of education and work came limitations.

Even after women won the right to vote in 1893, they were still not seen as individuals and equals. Marriage was a practical necessity for most women due to the lack of other financial possibilities available to them.

This was the accepted norm in New Zealand, however, things began to shift when Ethel Benjamin decided to study law at Otago University.

Education and politics

Miss Benjamin had a rough road to travel with obstacles at almost every turn, but that didn’t stop her.

“When I heard that, being a woman, I could not be admitted to the practice of the law, I was very indignant, and I suppose, being a true daughter of Eve, the fruit because forbidden, became all the more attractive and desirable, and I grew only the more determined to follow the legal profession,” she said in a 13 September 1897 interview published in The Press (Janet November, In the Footsteps of Ethel Benjamin, Victoria University Press, 2009).

In 1895, during her early years of study, a bill was brought to Parliament to let women practise law upon admission to the bar. It was, literally, received with laughter by the members of Parliament and tossed out. The bill was introduced again in 1896 by its author, George Russell, and again defeated.

Meanwhile, Ethel continued her studies.

While she did not face the kind of gender bias experienced by her female counterparts studying medicine (who on occasion had flesh thrown at them during anatomy classes) there were still obstacles in her way.

Her 13 male classmates had full access to resources for their studies, but, at times, Ethel had to self-teach due to the gender bias she sometimes faced.

When asked whether her heath had suffered from the pressures of studying, she sharply replied “Do I look like an invalid? I went to bed at 11 o’clock every night and gave myself an allowance of nine or ten hours’ rest, and, as you can see, this plan has agreed with me pretty well.”


Ethel Benjamin was one of the brightest students in her class and the top student in the first-class division of Constitutional History and Law and Jurisprudence in 1894.

The politician George Russell used Ethel’s high academic marks as proof that women could competently study toward, and work in, the legal profession.

Russell’s argument was presented to Parliament where he explained: “If we are going to lay down that the sphere of women should be confined solely to the household and the nursery, of what use is the higher education of women, which is one of the most prominent features of the education system?”

Not long after the rejection of his last attempt, Russell and Otago MP WM Bolt, put forth a bill which was passed finally allowing women to practice in the legal profession.

This bill was more than just a win for women wanting to practise law; it was a win for all New Zealand women, as it repealed laws barring women from working in many men-only professions.

It was widely acknowledged that had Ethel Benjamin not pursued her legal studies, the bill would probably not have passed. Her high marks quashed the general argument of the time that women could not handle the pressure of study and work.


After her admission and then her graduation in July 1897, the men of the legal profession still made things difficult.

They wanted to enforce special dress codes on Ethel when she appeared in court. She also found it difficult to gain employment. She was eventually hired by a small firm, but ultimately set up her own practice.

Miss Benjamin’s main clientele were victims of spousal abuse with no control over family assets. She helped women who were unable to leave their husbands for fear of losing their financial security and children.

Ethel Benjamin played a pivotal role in the progression of the attitudes of the legal profession toward women and also helped progress the mind set of citizens and shaped early gender equality laws of New Zealand.

120 years on

“Ethel Benjamin was certainly a trail blazer and I think she would have been proud to know that 120 years after her historic admission to the bar there would a 50/50 gender split in terms of the judges in the New Zealand Supreme Court, for example,” says Otago Women Lawyers Society Convenor Ruth Ballantyne.

“In terms of the legal profession, considering the fact that the majority of law school graduates are now in fact women, (which indeed has been the case for quite some time) women are still not proportionally reflected in leadership roles and other traditional measure of success.”

Ms Ballantyne says she feels significant societal changes are required to shift unconscious bias.

“I would like to see the adoption of more gender-neutral language so that people no longer use words like ‘mankind’, and so people stop using female terminology as derogatory words. I also think we need to stop using infantilising words like ‘girls’ to describe women.

“I would also like to see more equal treatment of women and men as parents so that it is not always predominately women taking time out of their careers to raise children. This means law firms having better paternity leave provisions and policies and a cultural shift towards men being recognised as equally capable primary caregivers. I would also like to see much better sex and consent education in ALL schools preferably with a much more substantive LGBTQI component. Pointing out that early education is key to stop the development of gender bias.”

Ms Ballantyne explains Ethel’s long reaching influence on women in the legal profession: “Vast numbers of women have now been appointed as judges across all levels of the judiciary, as QCs, as partners in firms, as academic Professors, and as directors, just to name a few of the available measures of legal success.”

Ethel Benjamin was more than just ‘the first woman lawyer’. Her choice to study law and work in the legal profession helped show a gender bias society what women are capable of, helping change laws and society’s attitudes allowing women the choice to have more to their lives than just wife and mother.

Lawyer Listing for Bots