Dame Augusta Wallace, who died on 12 April 2008 after a long illness, was the first woman appointed to the bench in New Zealand. Although it was International Women’s Year when she was appointed in September 1975, Dame Augusta eschewed any feminist connotations of the appointment and had little time for the view that women lawyers suffered discrimination. If anything, she preferred to view her appointment not as a blow for women but as encouragement.
In her 1996 publication, Without Prejudice: Women in the Law, Gill Gatfield noted that, at the time of her appointment, Judge Wallace supported the view that the “rather noisy business about women’s rights” was “doing women a disservice”. She believed that “if anyone put the appropriate hard work and endeavour into their field of work, there should be no reason why they should not succeed”.
Judge Wallace, Gatfield wrote, considered that merit, hard work and good sense were sufficient, though she later admitted that she had not appreciated the problem of discrimination until hearing the stories of other women lawyers and judges. However, she also considered that paid help in the home was essential to success.
LawTalk recorded Dame Augusta’s appointment in a short caption story as follows: Mrs Georgina Catriona Pamela Augusta Wallace, who was recently appointed New Zealand’s first woman stipendiary magistrate. She is to sit at Auckland. Mrs Wallace was admitted in 1954 and has practised on her own account in Papatoetoe for the past 11 years. She told the Auckland Star that there will be people who expect, because she is a woman, that she will be soft, but added: “I’ve spent a lot of time fostering, especially among young practitioners, a grim image, even a dragon image. In this profession it can be helpful to look forbidding.”
Dame Augusta sat in the Auckland District Court for nearly 15 years, then the Otahuhu District Court and the Papakura District Court. She survived a machete attack in the Otahuhu Youth Court in 1990 that led to a review of court security.
Made a Dame in 1993, Dame Augusta served in various judicial capacities, including on the Waitangi Tribunal (three years from 1996), chairing the Abortion Supervisory Committee (1977-79) and investigating allegations of bullying at Cambridge High School.
In a 14 April media statement, Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias paid tribute to Dame Augusta as providing “a significant example for women in the legal profession”, with her appointment to the bench being “an important affirmation of the contribution women could make to law”.
“The fact that she discharged her responsibilities with complete professionalism was particularly important in the move to gain acceptance for women in legal practice and, following her lead, on the bench.
“Although Dame Augusta had a brisk manner on the bench, that was never at the expense of care in her discharge of her judicial responsibilities. Nor did it diminish her personal warmth and twinkle. She had a great sense of humour and enjoyed very much the people she met in all aspects of her very busy life.
“Her contributions to public life have been outstanding. There are few who have worked so tirelessly for others in the community. She has a special place in the history of law in New Zealand and in the affections of the women who have followed her into legal practice and onto the bench.
“On behalf of the New Zealand judiciary, I express our sadness in Dame Augusta’s passing and our deep sympathy to her daughter, Kate McNeely, and her family,” Dame Sian said.
This obituary was first published in LawTalk 707, 5 May 2008, page 7.