This article commemorates the life of William Ah Ket, Australia’s first barrister of Chinese descent. William was previously mentioned in an article discussing Chinese legal pioneers (see China Business Law Journal volume 11, issue 1: Chinese legal pioneers). It is timely to commemorate William’s life because a photo of William will soon be unveiled in the Portrait Gallery of the Victorian Bar in Melbourne, Australia. In addition, the gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of memorabilia about him.
William Ah Ket [麦锡祥] was born in Wangaratta in the state of Victoria, Australia, in 1876. His father, Ma Ket [麦吉], had arrived in Victoria in 1855 to work as a community leader for the Chinese workers in the goldfields of Victoria. After completing his secondary education, he studied law at the University of Melbourne, and joined the law firm of Maddock & Jamieson (now Maddocks). After completing his training as a lawyer in 1899, William won the Supreme Court Judges Prize in 1902, and was admitted to practice in 1903. He joined the ranks of barristers the following year, and is widely understood to have become the first Australian lawyer of Chinese descent to practise as a barrister at the independent bar in the state of Victoria.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography notes the following in its entry on William Ah Ket:
Ah Ket built up a healthy practice at the Victorian Bar, specialising in civil law. He was in the front rank of pleaders and became renowned as a fine cross-examiner – quietly spoken, courteous and shrewd – and as an outstanding jury man. He acquired a considerable reputation as a negotiator of settlements. Ah Ket’s colleagues remembered him with warmth and affection as an amiable and gregarious man, greatly respected for his ability and integrity. He was an excellent after-dinner speaker, a prominent Freemason and a keen punter and golfer.
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A former partner of Linklaters Shanghai, Andrew Godwin teaches law at Melbourne Law School in Australia, where he is an associate director of its Asian Law Centre. Andrew’s new book is a compilation of China Business Law Journal’s popular Lexicon series, entitled China Lexicon: Defining and translating legal terms. The book is published by Vantage Asia and available at www.vantageasia.com