William Ah Ket
‘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 cases, Bishop v Chung Brothers, Potter v Minahan and Ingham v Hie Lee, 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.