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William Ah Ket legacy recognised

William Ah Ket legacy recognised

By Karin Derkley

Diversity Legal Biography 


The son of an early Chinese migrant became a 'phenomenon of the Bar'. The first Chinese-Australian barrister wowed the courts and the Victorian public with his legal prowess and rapier wit. Barrister William Ah Ket was regarded as a brilliant cross-examiner "with few equals at the Bar". But despite his achievements and high profile, he watched as colleagues and juniors leapfrogged past him to become KCs and judges. The son of a migrant shopkeeper and tobacco farmer had come a long way. His father Mah Ket was one of hundreds of Chinese men who walked cross-country from the coast in the 1850s to seek their fortunes in the “New Gold Mountain” in central Victoria. Mah Ket did well on the goldfields, married and moved to Wangaratta where he became a respected member of the local community. His only son William had a precocious talent for the law, acting as a court interpreter for the Chinese community while he was still in his teens. As soon as he finished high school, William moved to Melbourne to study law at the University of Melbourne. There he excelled, passing his exams with flying colours and winning the Supreme Court Judge's prize. After his articles at Maddock and Jamieson (now Maddocks), Mr Ah Ket signed up to the Victorian Bar in 1904 and set himself up at Selbourne Chambers, where over the years his neighbours would include future judges Leo Cussen, Henry Winneke and Owen Dixon, as well as future prime minister Robert Menzies. William Ah Ket soon made a name for himself for his clever and witty takedowns of hostile witnesses. Newspaper reports of his cases are interspersed with references to “laughter”, as he skewered his opponents with quotes from Shakespeare, the Scottish poet Robert Burns or a Gilbert & Sullivan opera. A famous cartoon of the time portrayed Ah Ket as the “Chinese Court-Jester of the Victorian Bar”. But he was astute as well as entertaining, and known to be scrupulous in preparing for his court appearances, familiarising himself with the idiosyncrasies of the judges and with the particulars of the incidents behind the case. He was also regarded as a highly skilled negotiator. Robert Menzies described him as a “phenomenon at the Bar”. One commentator even suggested Menzies picked up his renowned declamatory style of debating from Mr Ah Ket, who is assumed to be the famous Chinese lawyer “who ran rings around the learned judges in the 1920s”. However, Ah Ket’s skills were not sufficient to get him over the race barrier. While he continued to practise from his chambers for 20 years, he watched as others who had once been juniors were promoted to KCs and judges, while Robert Menzies left the law to become the nation’s prime minister. Menzies recognised the injustice of the “bamboo ceiling” of the time, writing that: “William Ah Ket did not ever sit on the bench, though he would have been a very competent judge . . . A certain prejudice among clients against having a Chinese barrister to an extent limited his practice, though instructing solicitors thought very well of him”. Where he was held back from progressing in his career, Ah Ket recognised that his countrymen were experiencing state-sanctioned discrimination and advocated tirelessly against prejudicial legislation, such as the Immigration Restriction Act with its impassable dictation test that was forced on potential migrants in a language different to their own to ensure they would fail. He opposed the poll tax that allowed ships to carry only one Chinese passenger for every 10 tonnes of cargo, as well as the government’s Naturalisation Bill that was designed to deter Chinese migrants from getting the right to vote. He also argued in a number of court cases against the Factories Act that was specifically designed to discriminate against Chinese employees engaged in the furniture and cabinet-making industry, and against the rule of Restricted Time for Residence of Chinese wives that prevented women from giving birth in Australia to a child conceived during their visit here. In 1913 he was rewarded for his work with the Chinese-Australian community when he was appointed as acting consul-general for China. It was not just the Chinese community that appreciated him. When he died at the age of 60 in 1936, newspapers across the country, from the Melbourne Age to the Port Pirie Recorder in South Australia, to the Roma Advertiser in Queensland, reported on the end of the “meteoric career” of “one of the most popular members of the Victorian Bar”. However, it would be another 80 years before the next Chinese-Australian would be appointed to the Bar, when William Lye became a barrister in 1988. The legacy of William Ah Ket and his contribution to the law has now been recognised in perpetuity with an annual essay prize in his name granted by the Asian Australian Lawyers Association and sponsored by Maddocks. The winner of the first William Ah Ket Scholarship was government solicitor Thomas K Abraham, for his paper "Affirmative Action in Piercing the Bamboo Ceiling within the Australian Legal Profession". It argued that innovation arises when diverse cultures intersect and collaborate.

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