Ethel Benjamin

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Ethel Rebecca Benjamin (19 January 1875 – 14 October 1943) was New Zealand’s first female lawyer. On 17 September 1897, she became the first woman in the British Empire to appear as counsel in court, representing a client for the recovery of a debt. She was the second woman in the Empire to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor, two months after Clara Brett Martin of Canada.[1]

Early life[edit]

Benjamin was born in Dunedin, to Lizzie Mark and Henry Benjamin, a Dunedin money-broker. The family were Orthodox Jews, and she is believed to be the eldest of at least seven children. She attended Otago Girls' High School from 1883 to 1892.[2]

Legal career[edit]

In 1893 Benjamin enrolled at the University of Otago for an LLB degree, not knowing if she would be able to practice law on completion:

It is true that the Legal Profession was not then open to women, and that the franchise had not yet been granted, but I had faith that a colony so liberal as our own would not long tolerate such purely artificial barriers. I therefore entered on my studies with a light heart, feeling sure that I should not long be debarred from the use of any degree I might obtain.

Benjamin graduated in July 1897, having achieved outstanding marks in her course. The Female Law Practitioners Act was passed in 1896 and on 10 May 1897 she was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand.

Upon her graduation, Benjamin was asked to speak on behalf of all the graduates. She is reported to have said:

It was only yesterday that I was asked to undertake this pleasant task, and while deeply sensible to the compliment paid to me, I was somewhat diffident about taking so much upon myself at so short a notice. But I knew that little would be expected of me and even if I succeeded in talking nonsense, the charitable verdict would be, 'Oh well, it is all that can be expected of a woman.'[1]

Despite receiving adverse treatment from the Otago District Law Society at the time, such as restricted access to the society's library, she opened and ran a successful legal practice, primarily as a solicitor. Her cases included wife abuse, divorce, and adoption.[2][3]

In 1899, the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children made Ethel Benjamin honorary solicitor.

Marriage and relocations[edit]

Ethel Benjamin married Alfred Mark Ralph De Costa in 1907, and moved to live with him in Wellington. She continued her legal practice, in an office adjacent to her husband's. In 1908, the De Costas moved to England and during World War I Ethel De Costa managed a bank in Sheffield. Between the wars, the De Costas lived in southern France and Italy. Ethel was accidentally struck by a motor vehicle, and died of a fractured skull in Mount Vernon Hospital at Northwood, Middlesex, England, on 14 October 1943.[2]


The Ethel Benjamin Prize for women was established in 1997 by the New Zealand Law Foundation, to mark the centenary of the admission of Ethel Benjamin as New Zealand's first woman barrister and solicitor. As of 2007 the $20,000 NZD prize is awarded annually, to two female recipients.

Ethel Benjamin Place, a cul de sac across the road from the University of Otago Central Library, was named after the lawyer, during Suffrage Centennial Year 1993.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mayhew, Judith (2001-09-04). "5th Annual Ethel Benjamin Commemorative Address". New Zealand Law Society. Retrieved 2007-10-01. 
  2. ^ a b c Brown, Carol (2007-06-22). "Benjamin, Ethel Rebecca 1875 - 1943". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Retrieved 2007-10-01. 
  3. ^ "Ethel Benjamin". Monumental Stories website. Retrieved 2007-10-01. 
  4. ^ "Street names and plaques". Dunedin City Council. Retrieved 2009-11-12. 

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