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The Late Dame Roma Mitchell AC DBE CVO

This is a tribute to The late Dame Roma Mitchell, a foundation Patron of the Centre

Roma Mitchell was born in Adelaide on the 2nd of October,1913 and passed away on 5 March 2000, the second daughter of Harold and Maude (nee Wickham), and the grand-daughter of Judge Samuel James Mitchell. Her father was killed in France in 1918. From an early age neither she nor her mother had any doubts that she would pursue a career as a lawyer.

Dame Roma was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St Aloysius College, where her industry and single minded commitment awed and perplexed her classmates. It was whispered that ‘Roma would rather do her Latin homework than go to the pictures on Saturday evening!’ She was Dux of School and won a scholarship to study law at the University of Adelaide, where she graduated as the outstanding scholar of her year in 1934. As a student she could not take part in law moots nor join the law students’ society, these being closed to women; her response was to start her own female students’ association.

When Dame Roma began practising as a barrister, her conscience did not allow her to accept criminal briefs, as she thought the appearance of a woman defender might prejudice juries – all men, at that time – against her client. She was articled to the advocate J.W. Nelligan, QC, and became a partner in the firm. She specialised in matrimonial law, and in 1962 was the Australian delegate at a United Nations seminar on the Status of Women in Family Law. She was always a feminist, speaking regularly over the years on the empanelling of women jurors, on equal pay, equal opportunity, equal access to political life, and equal representation in union affairs.

In 1962 she took silk, becoming the first woman Queen’s Counsel in Australia, and in 1965 she was the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of South Australia. Despite her lack of criminal experience, Dame Roma excelled as a judge, since juries – now containing the women for whose presence she had long argued – received gratefully the commonsense and the compassion which informed her comments, and the clarity with which she delivered them.

From 1970 to 1981 she was Chairman of the Criminal Law and Penal Methods Reform Committee, which produced the Mitchell Report, a five-volume report recommending far-reaching and innovative reforms. All were based upon her clear-sighted, sensible and compassionate judgments on crime, punishment and the making of a civil society. From 1981 to 1986 she was the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Human Rights Commission, a role that allowed her to speak and work for justice for disadvantaged minorities in society, such as Aboriginal people and those with disabilities. She had been aware of poverty and inequality since her student days in the Great Depression, when she watched the unemployed queuing for food vouchers. ‘I always felt that we shouldn’t have a Depression again, and I think that strongly influenced me in practice as well as elsewhere’.

From 1972 she was deputy chancellor of the University of Adelaide, and from 1983 to 1991 Chancellor, the first commoner woman to hold the position. In 1991 she became the first woman to be Governor of South Australia, a position she held until 1996. Enjoying undiminished energies, she was indefatigable in visiting towns throughout South Australia, and presided with obvious pleasure at concerts, festivals and functions. She was the first Governor of South Australia to undertake trade missions overseas, visiting several parts of Indonesia, including Irian Jaya (West Irian), in 1994, and going to China in 1995. When she completed her term in 1996, she returned with equal dignity and simplicity to her retirement activities; the theatre, travelling, swimming and beach-walking, enjoying the company of friends, and delivering meals-on-wheels. This she combined with continuing influential roles in public life. These included her acceptance of the role of a patron of the University of South Australia’s Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre in 1997. She was present at the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding with former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and showed a consistent interest in the program and progress of the project. The Centre’s tenets – strengthening our democracy, valuing our diversity, building our future - were goals that she held in high regard.

Perhaps the most striking of all Dame Roma’s qualities was her apparently complete freedom from prejudice, bigotry or attachment to the irrational or to the out-dated. She was as committed to compassion as she was to justice. In speech she was moderate, logical, courteous and forthright; in manner dignified, friendly and controlled. Injustice aroused in her not heat but the resolve to overcome it, and this was as true for her own career as for individuals or groups in the community. She could even relish absurdity in the prejudice against women in her profession; when recalling that she had once been told she had ‘a man’s brain’, she remarked dryly: ’I think they meant it as a compliment.’

An anecdote of her earliest years reveals the basis of her already firm character. News had come confirming her father’s death in action, and she went to greet her older sister on her return from school, to break this news to her. When her mother asked her why she had done this, the child replied: ‘I wanted to save you.’ At four years, Roma had already learnt to feel for another’s distress, and to take practical action to allay it.