Dame Roma Mitchell

Dame Roma Flinders Mitchell

'She blazed a trail for Australian women - in law, in public service and in academic life'. Governor-General Sir William Deane.


Statue of Dame Roma Mitchell,
officially unveiled on 2 July 1999,
by the Governor-General,
Sir William Deane.
Bronze statue by Janette Moore

Dame Roma Flinders Mitchell, AC, DBE, CVO, QC, born in Adelaide on 2 October 1913, was the youngest of three children of Harold and Maude Mitchell. Her grandfather, Samuel James Mitchell born on 11 May 1852 at Mount Barker, worked as an auctioneer, draper and became Mayor of Port Augusta. He later practised law at Mount Gambier and Melrose and was the last South Australian Judge and Government Resident of the Northern Territory. He handed over to the Commonwealth in 1911 He was also the first Judge of the Commonwealth Bankruptcy Court in South Australia. He died on 3 October 1926. His son Harold, born 11 August 1885, practised law for a short time in Renmark before joining the AIF. Lieutenant Mitchell died on 5 April 1918 and was buried at Millencourt Cemetery in France. After the war the Mitchell family moved back to North Adelaide.

Devout Catholics, but with little money, the young family managed as best as they could. Mrs Mitchell was determined that her daughters would have a sound education and a career, something she herself never had. Roma continued her education at St Aloysius' Convent College, where she was dux in 1929 and again in 1930.

She studied, and enjoyed, music, dancing and law. From a young age Roma had made up her mind to become a lawyer, which was after all a family tradition. It was during these depression years that Roma also developed a strong sense of social justice. Everyday on her way to University she would see the unemployed lined up for their ration cards and felt that both unemployment and poverty were wrong.

At Adelaide University she excelled as a student, completing the course in four years instead of five. She was active in student politics and when barred from joining the Law Students' Society because she was a woman, she became instrumental in the formation of the Women Law Students' Society. Her association with the University was to last for more than sixty years.

At the end of her law course she was awarded the David Murray Scholarship as the most brilliant student of her year. After graduating she achieved her dream when admitted to the Bar in 1934. Roma became a partner in the legal firm of Nelligan, Angas Parsons and Mitchell in 1935 and practised as a barrister, overcoming the much-entrenched attitude that the law was for men only.

As early as 1940 Roma Mitchell was instrumental in assisting the drafting of the Guardianship of Infants Act which was passed that year by the South Australian Parliament. In 1960 she became a part time lecturer and in 1965 a member of the University Council. While still a lawyer in 1962 she was the Australian representative at the United Nations seminar on the Status of Women in Family Law.

In 1962 she became Australia's first female Queen's Counsel and gave her full support to the efforts made by the League of Women Voters to allow women to sit on juries. This issue had been raised as early as 1911 when the Women's Non-Party Political Association had included it in its platform. As the main campaigner, it were her clever arguments which finally changed Premier Tom Playford's mind in November 1962. As QC she also continuously advocated equal pay for equal work.

In 1965 she became the first Commonwealth female Supreme Court judge. Roma Mitchell had worked very hard to achieve these appointments and said on the occasion that she hoped that in her lifetime appointments such as these would not excite comments as they did at that time. When she retired from the Bench in 1983 there was still no woman appointed during these years, or one to replace her.

During these years she continued lecturing part time at the University of Adelaide in Family Law. When a Royal Commission was established to look into the dismissal of Police Commissioner, Harold Salisbury, it was Justice Roma Mitchell who conducted the inquiry. In March 1978 she reported that the dismissal, 'while not the only course open to the government' had been justifiable.

From 1970-1981 Roma Mitchell chaired the South Australian Criminal Law and Penal Methods Reform Committee. For several years she also chaired the Parole Board and became Acting Chief Justice in 1983. In 1972 Roma Mitchell was made a CBE. During the same year, Roma Mitchell was elected Senior Deputy Chancellor and in 1983 Chancellor of the University. No other woman in Australia had ever achieved any of these appointments before her. She remained as Chancellor until 1990 when she resigned to become Governor of South Australia. However she maintained a great interest in the University and returned many a times to attend lectures, seminars and conferences.

In 1981 she became the founding chairperson of the Australian Human Rights Commission until 1986 when it became the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. By that time she had become a campaigner of international acclaim. She thought the passing, and implementation, of the Human Rights Commission Act a landmark and later found it very irritating when some of the States could not or would not agree on human rights issues. She considered this the most important committee she had served on.

During all these years Roma Mitchell was a pioneer, a crusader for equality, and a conservative feminist always pleased to lead women into new directions. She has been an inspiration to women for rising to the top, entirely on her own merits, in a male-dominated profession. Affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws, in particular those dealing with Aboriginal people, have been a trademark of her distinguished career.

She served on many committees and contributed actively to many organisations, particularly those concerned with Education, Heritage, Arts, Equal Opportunities and Human Rights. In 1982 Roma Mitchell became a Dame Commander of the British Empire. Until 1991 she served as National President of the Australian Association of Ryder-Cheshire Foundation and President of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. In 1985 she was awarded the degree of Doctor of the University.

In 1991 she was made a Companion in the Order of Australia and also became Governor of South Australia, again the first woman ever to be appointed to such a position. Although this appointment was much deserved, it also meant that she no longer could speak out about issues very dear to her. Although never a Member of Parliament, Dame Roma was most certainly part of the Executive and the one who signed its bills into law. As Governor she occupied a special position in the hearts of most South Australians. They liked her warm personality, her humanity and the genuine interest she showed in people of all walks of life.

With her special interest in women's issues, it was no wonder that she became Patron of the Centenary of Women's Suffrage in 1994. Throughout her long career Roma Mitchell has held strong views on feminist issues. When appointed to the Supreme Court Bench she said, Women should be able to take whatever place they are fitted to take in the professions. She often spoke about the issue of working wives, refresher courses for women graduates who wanted to return to work after having brought up their children and the need for housework to be shared.

When already more than eighty years old she still travelled far and wide. On 13 January 1996 she went to Robe to open the rebuilt Beacon Hill Lookout as part of that town's sesquicentenary celebrations. In April she went to the Clare Valley with the new Governor-General, Sir William Deane, who was on his first official tour of engagements outside Canberra. That same year she also chaired the South Australian Ministerial Board on Ageing.

When on 11 July 1996, the Cathedral Church of Saint Francis Xavier was dedicated as a House of God, exactly 138 years after it was opened on 11 July 1858, Governor Dame Roma Mitchell took part in the Dedication Service. In 1997 Dame Roma gave active support to the Women for Wik to endorse the High Court's decision on Wik. During that year she was also made a Commander de la Legion d'Honeur.

In February 1998 she took part in the Constitutional Convention and was a founding Trustee of the Don Dunstan Foundation. In October 1999 Dame Roma was at Glenelg to Commission the Australian Customs vessel Holdfast Bay, which would be used in the fight against people and drug smugglers. Two months later she chaired a debate at Adelaide University where six prominent Australians debated the issue 'That Ideology Is Dead'.

Although a little frail physically during her later years, her mind remained sharp. Dame Roma Flinders Mitchell received her final honour, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, from the Governor-General Sir William Deane, on her sickbed in Hospital shortly before she died after a short illness, on 5 March 2000 aged 86. She was accorded a state funeral in recognition of her work and as Governor of South Australia. The new Centre for Performing and Visual Arts in Adelaide will be named after Dame Roma Mitchell.

Dame Roma was never motivated to be a pioneer. All she wanted was to be a successful barrister. As it turned out she was far more than a successful barrister. Her achievements and milestones, brought about by commitment, devotion and shear hard work have been outstanding, and she has been highly respected and often called the state's First Lady. Her influence on the reform and development of criminal law and the promotion of human rights and equality will be felt and remembered for a very long time.

Nine months after her death the Australian Customs Vessel 'Dame Roma Mitchell' was commissioned by Senator Amanda Vanstone at Port Adelaide on 8 December 2000. All other vessels in this class are named after bays that have a relevance to Customs; this vessel is the exception to the rule. While the vessel's official name is the Australian Customs and Border Protection Vessel Dame Roma Mitchell, she is universally known as 'The Dame'.

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