From childhood, Augusta Wallace’s life was entwined with the law. She was the daughter, wife and mother of lawyers, had her own law practice, and became New Zealand’s first female district court judge in 1975. Despite her considerable achievements, she was a reluctant role model for women, distancing herself from feminism and seeing her appointment as a natural consequence of her own efforts and the increasing numbers of women in the law profession.
Georgina Catriona Pamela Augusta Dunlop was born in Auckland on 11 October 1929, the daughter of barrister Fergus Gale Dunlop and his wife, Canadian-born Georgina Catherine Mary Crook, who was described on official forms as a ‘housewife’ but undertook considerable community and church work and was also a talented singer. For Fergus Dunlop this was a second marriage following divorce, so Augusta (as she was known) had two older half-siblings as well as a younger brother. Augusta described Fergus as a ‘delightful father’ who encouraged curiosity in his children and expected that they would go on to higher education. A fluent speaker of te reo Māori, he introduced his daughter to the Māori language. Although she was not confident about speaking it in public, this acquaintance with te reo was to prove useful in the courtroom. That Augusta Dunlop would have a legal career was established early, and she studied Latin from a young age with this in mind. She grew up believing that ‘being a woman was not a barrier to any undertaking’, an assumption that sustained her in later years, while also exposing her to criticism.1
Born prematurely, and not especially robust as a child, Augusta Dunlop did not commence her formal education at Howick Primary School until the age of seven and a half. Astonishingly, in retrospect, her parents were summoned at one point to be told they had a ‘severely subnormal child’, an assessment that was contradicted when she became dux of Howick District High School and then a successful scholar at Epsom Girls’ Grammar. Between 1948 and 1953 she was the only woman in her law class at Auckland University College. She claimed to have been treated as an equal by her fellow students and to have had favourable rather than discriminatory treatment from her lecturers, and always asserted that she had faced no problems as a woman in law: ‘quite the reverse’.2 The arts papers she studied brought her into intellectual domains outside the law, and she was encouraged by her parents, with whom she still lived as a student, to explore all aspects of university life.
Augusta Dunlop inherited her family’s ethos of community participation. The Dunlops were members of the Howick Church of England congregation, and Augusta played the organ in its bible class. She remained an active churchgoer throughout her life, believing that religion was a ‘powerful influence on children’ and society in general, and that its decline underlay many social problems. Though her family was not overtly political, Augusta became a founding member of the Howick branch of the Junior National Party. As a young lawyer she played an establishment role in branches of organisations such as Marriage Guidance, Birthright and the South Auckland Lawyers’ Association. Elected as an independent to the Papatoetoe City Council in 1970, she served one term, considering that her perspective as a lawyer enabled her to play devil’s advocate and get all concerned to think carefully about the matters under discussion. Personal and professional developments intersected with these community contributions.
In 1955, the year after her graduation, Augusta Dunlop married Neville Wallace, a professional soldier she had met when they were both studying at university. Initially his career took precedence, the couple moving within New Zealand, and also living briefly in Malaysia (1958) and England (1966). Augusta worked as a law clerk and lawyer in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch before returning to her home city. After working for an Ōtāhuhu law firm, she established her own Papatoetoe law practice, GCPA Wallace Law, in 1964. She had given birth to her only child, Catherine Jane Augusta, in 1957, continuing to work during and after her pregnancy. Although this was highly unusual for women lawyers at the time, Wallace felt there was no adverse reaction from her colleagues or clientele, and that she could successfully combine the roles of wife, mother and law practitioner. She did acknowledge the strong support of family and a long-term housekeeper. After leaving the army Neville trained as a lawyer and joined GCPA Wallace Law in 1976, further cementing the family’s ties with the profession.
At a time when women made up little more than two per cent of lawyers in New Zealand, Augusta Wallace gained wide experience during her first 20 years of practice, ranging from court work to domestic and commercial law. Several times she was asked whether she was interested in becoming a judge, a proposition from which she initially recoiled. But feeling ready for a change in the mid-1970s, she wrote to the Secretary of Justice indicating her readiness to go ‘on the bench’. There was an immediate affirmative response and, after due process, her appointment was announced in 1975.
When indicating her willingness to serve, Wallace had not paid attention to the timing, for this was the International Year of Women, and she was New Zealand’s first female judge. A very private person, she was displeased by the publicity that followed her appointment and affronted by any suggestion of tokenism. She nonetheless agreed to the requisite interviews, with the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly’s headline reassuring readers, ‘First woman on Bench likes sewing, cooking and gardening’. While the ‘petite, bright-eyed Mrs Wallace’ was a ‘straight talker with a warm, quick smile’, it soon became clear that the new magistrate did not see herself as a flag-bearer for feminism. She was quoted as saying that ‘this rather noisy business about women’s rights is doing women a dis-service’, and ‘if anyone puts the appropriate hard work and endeavour into their field of work there should be no reason why they should not succeed’.3 Her stance, which the feminist magazine Broadsheet castigated as ‘classic Queen Bee syndrome’, was later tempered by an appreciation of the difficulties faced by many other women lawyers in New Zealand.4
Wallace faced further criticism from feminists and others when she served as the first chair of the Abortion Supervisory Committee between 1977 and 1979. The right to abortion was a highly divisive issue at the time, and the passage of the Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977 did little to appease those on either side of the debate. The committee’s difficult role was to implement the act’s provisions, licensing abortion clinics and issuing certificates to the certifying consultants authorised to approve terminations. Wallace considered herself sufficiently robust to withstand the public criticisms that ensued, but she resented the pressures placed on her family and served only one term on the committee.
Augusta Wallace served as a district court judge at the Auckland District Court for nearly 15 years, and then had appointments on the Ōtāhuhu and Papakura district courts. She commanded her courtroom with a no-nonsense manner and what she herself acknowledged could be a ‘grim . . . even a dragon image’, useful for a woman in the courtroom context.5 It was while serving in the Ōtāhuhu court in 1990 that Wallace was seriously injured by a 16-year-old youth wielding a machete. She suffered severe head and facial injuries and recovered fully only after five months. She returned to the bench, determined that the event, which sparked a major review of court security, would not define her life. Wallace retired in February 1993 aged 63, later emphasising that the attack had had nothing to do with this decision: ‘I could have retired before I did, but I didn’t because I was going to make darn sure that I didn’t retire just because I had been hit on the head’. With typical briskness, she said she had put the attack behind her.6
In 1993 Wallace was created a Dame. Ever supportive, Neville Wallace felt obliged to point out that his wife had gained the honour for her achievements, not her gender. ‘My wife has achieved this honour not because she is a woman but because she has been a very competitive and able lawyer and judge and, dare I say, much more of a “gentleman” than many of the men who sit on the bench’.7 Dame Augusta went on to contribute in various public service roles, most notably an appointment to the Waitangi Tribunal (1996-2006), where she was presiding officer over the Kaipara and Hauraki district inquiries. Other activities included an inquiry into bullying at Cambridge High School in 2004, chairing the Disposal Options Advisory Group for Ports of Auckland, membership of the Foundation for the Newborn Trust Board, and roles as patron of Age Concern New Zealand and chair of At Risk Kids and Victim Support.
While Wallace’s public image was often that of a clever, tough and highly efficient professional, colleagues were aware of her personal warmth and good humour; the ‘twinkle’ behind the capable exterior. Those who had a more personal acquaintance with Wallace saw another side – a smoker who was not averse to a glass of whisky, she cooked, sewed, listened to music and enjoyed retreating to the family home at Whitford.
Predeceased by her husband Neville, Dame Augusta died of colon cancer at South Auckland Hospice on 12 April 2008, aged 78. Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias noted her special place in the history of the law in New Zealand and her importance as a role model for other women lawyers: the fact that Dame Augusta had ‘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’.8 Augusta Wallace may have distanced herself from the feminist movement of her time, but she exemplified in her personal life and public achievements many of its aspirations.