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William Ah Ket Scholarship

The William Ah Ket Scholarship is an annual prize open to all lawyers admitted to practice in Australia with up to five years’ post admission experience.

The $6,000 scholarship is designed to foster the development and promotion of cultural diversity in the legal profession. Two shortlisted applicants will receive $1,000 each.

The scholarship is named after William Ah Ket, the son of Chinese migrants who was admitted to practice in Victoria in 1903. William completed his articles clerkship at Maddock & Jamieson (now Maddocks) before signing the Victorian Bar roll in 1904. He practised as a barrister until his death in 1936.

William is believed to be the first person of Chinese background to practise as a barrister in Australia.

The William Ah Ket Scholarship has been devised by the Asian Australian Lawyers Association and is proudly sponsored by Maddocks.

It was first staged in 2017.

The winner of the 2019 William Ah Ket Scholarship was announced at the High Court in Canberra on 9 October 2019. Find out more.

At the 2019 William Ah Ket Scholarship announcement event, Chief Justice of the High Court, The Hon Susan Kiefel AC spoke about William Ah Ket’s career in the law. You can read that speech here.

Find out more about the 2017 winner of the William Ah Ket Scholarship.

Find out more about the 2018 winner.

Read the 2017 winning research paper ‘Affirmative Action in Piercing the Bamboo Ceiling within the Australian Legal Profession — Utopian Ideal or Dystopian Nightmare?

William Ah Ket

Maddock & Jamieson staff, 1903. William Ah Ket, back row, second from left.

William Ah Ket did not ever sit on the Bench, though he would have been a very competent judge. He was a phenomenon at the Victorian Bar, a full-blooded Chinese born in the north-east of Victoria. He was a sound lawyer and a good advocate.

– Sir Robert Menzies, barrister and Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister.

The story of William Ah Ket is a significant one in the history of the Australian legal profession.

William was born in the Victorian country town of Wangaratta in 1876, the son of Mah Ket, who arrived from Canton during the gold rush, and his wife Hing Ung.

Fulfilling his father’s wishes, William studied law at the University of Melbourne. While there he won a prize of 40 pounds from the Supreme Court in 1902. He served his articles under Richard Cross of the firm then known as Maddock & Jamieson (now Maddocks) in 1903.

He joined the Victorian Bar in 1904, reading with Stewart McArthur – who later went on to be a Supreme Court judge – and became the first Chinese barrister to practise in Melbourne. He is also believed to be the first Chinese barrister to practise in Australia.

William was well regarded as a barrister. He specialised in civil law and acquired a considerable reputation as a negotiator of settlements.

A report in the Victorian Bar News of Winter 1984 records that he enjoyed ‘an excellent general practice’ and ‘was recognised as an able cross-examiner with a superb command of language’.
However, as Sir Robert Menzies, who was a friend and practised with Mr Ah Ket in Selbourne Chambers, observed ‘[a] certain prejudice among clients against having a Chinese barrister to an extent limited his practice’.

Despite this, between 1905 and 1928, he appeared before the High Court on at least 12 occasions. This included a number of High Court cases, Bishop v Chung Brothers [1907] HCA 23; 4 CLR 1262, Potter v Minahan [1908] HCA 63; 7 CLR 277, and Ingham v Hie Lee [1912] HCA 66; 15 CLR 267, that involved challenges to legislation that discriminated against those of Chinese origin. Indeed, as his daughter Toylaan noted in a paper on her father, this was an issue that he was passionate about, having been involved in forming a committee to agitate against the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and the unreasonable conditions imposed, such as the infamous dictation test.

William was a member of the Chinese Empire Reform Association of 1904 and the Anti-Opium League of Victoria, organisations which supported modernisation and social reform among Chinese at home and abroad. He was also a delegate to the first interstate Chinese convention held at Melbourne in 1905 and was co-founder and president of the Sino-Australian Association, considered to be the first Australian-Chinese club.

He visited China in 1912-13 as the delegate of the Victorian Chinese Chamber of Commerce to participate in the election of overseas Chinese to the new parliament of the Republic. He was also the acting consul-general for China in 1913-14 and in 1917.

William died on 6 August 1936.

The William Ah Ket Scholarship

The William Ah Ket Scholarship is an annual scholarship of $6,000 to be given to the young lawyer who produces the most outstanding research paper in the field of equality, diversity and the law. From 2018, a further $1,000 prize will be given to two shortlisted entrants.

An initiative of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association and sponsored by Maddocks, the scholarship is designed to recognise the historical contribution of William Ah Ket to the legal profession as the first Asian Australian lawyer in Australia.

The William Ah Ket scholarship is aimed at lawyers with no more than five years post admission experience.

To apply for the William Ah Ket scholarship, lawyers will need to submit an unpublished paper of no more than 5,000 words (including footnotes, appendices and tables) on a topic dealing with equality, diversity and the law.

William Ah Ket Scholarship application form

Applications for the 2019 William Ah Ket Scholarship are now open.

For more information, email scholarship@aala.org.au