Law School history
The UWA Law School was established in 1927. It is the oldest Law School in Western Australia and the fifth oldest in Australia.
Over the past 90 years we have gone from strength to strength, and have a long and proud history of excellence in legal education, research and community service. We are immensely proud of the achievements of our graduates, staff and students.
- Law of the Whadjuk Noongar
The UWA Law School is situated in the homeland of the Whadjuk Noongar people and is a relative newcomer to a place already inhabited by an ancient Indigenous legal system. The Law of the Whadjuk Noongar focuses on sustaining the connections between all life, and through following their Law, the Whadjuk Noongar kept their Country and people happy and healthy for thousands of years.
When the UWA Law School was established, the complex law-ways of the Whadjuk Noongar and other Australian First Peoples was not well understood. Today, however, UWA Law School is proud to welcome Indigenous students from across Australia and looks forward to being a part of walking forward together with the Whadjuk Noongar and other First Peoples of Australia.
- 1920s and 30s
The UWA Law School is born in 1927 and teaching begins in 1928 with thousands of students – well, hundreds – okay, 21 students. Professor Frank Beasley is the first Dean and the only full time staff member. UWA Law starts in the University building on the corner of St George’s Terrace and Irwin Street, and moves into two rooms in the newly completed Winthrop Hall in 1936. Students and staff wear formal dress to all classes, which is to say, men wear ties and everyone wanders about in black academic gowns. The law student society is established and named after a famed English jurist, ensuring that future students forever know the name ‘Blackstone’ although some may associate it more with parties than with jurisprudence.
Before the advent of UWA Law, the only way to qualify as a lawyer was to undertake a five year articled clerkship (practical training in service to a member of the profession). The new four year Bachelor of Laws (LLB) combined with a three year clerkship provides an alternative pathway that is particularly important for women, who find it difficult to get articles due to the attitudes of the times. Of the 59 students who graduate between 1930 and 1939, 11 are women.
The very first students graduate in 1930 and back then they knew a thing or two about celebrating, with graduation festivities lasting three to four days and ending in a ball. Notable graduates in this era include Joseph Starke (the Law School’s first Rhodes scholar) and Enid Russell (the first woman admitted to legal practice in Western Australia).
The world is at war, and UWA Law shuts down from 1942 - 1943. Professor Beasley goes into active service, and Ernest Blankensee becomes the Acting Dean. In 1943, UWA Law moves into new premises that have the advantage of a disused chemistry lab that can be converted into a library, but the disadvantage of being built in a time when constructing things out of asbestos was thought to be a sterling idea. The Law School increases its full time staff to a grand total of two in 1947, and publishes the first edition of the oldest University Law Journal in Australia, the UWA Law Review, in 1948.
Notable graduates include Francis Burt (later Chief Justice of Western Australia and then Governor) and Ronald Wilson, the first WA Justice of the High Court of Australia and later the Chair of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
In 1952, the curriculum is reviewed for the first time since 1928. Roman Law is dropped and Constitutional Law is expanded. Law students begin to worry less about the Emperor Justinian and more about the separation of powers.
Between 1950 and 1960, UWA Law graduates a future Prime Minister (Bob Hawke), two Commonwealth Ministers (Billy Snedden and Ian Viner), a High Court justice (John Toohey) a WA Senator (Reg Withers), a WA Supreme Court Justice and UWA Chancellor (Geoffrey Kennedy), and the Vice-President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (Kevin Parker).
Future students increasingly feel they have a lot to live up to.
Professor Beasley retires in 1963 after an astonishing 37 years as Dean, and is succeeded by Douglas Payne. The UWA Law School moves into a building that wins architecture awards and is importantly made of concrete rather than asbestos. The new premises are opened by Sir Garfield Barwick, Chief Justice of the High Court, in 1967. The students prove the worth of their legal education by successfully challenging the hourly rate at which they were paid to move law books across campus. The Law School acquires a fountain in 1968. Sometimes it still works.
Notable graduates include a future WA Premier (Peter Dowding); WA Governor (Malcolm McCusker); WA Chief Justice (David Malcolm); first female judge of the District Court (Antoinette Kennedy); first Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (Ian Temby), and two Commonwealth Ministers (Fred Chaney and Daryl Williams).
UWA Law turns 50 in 1977 and is guided through the decade by three Deans: Eric Edwards (1971-4, 1976-8), IWP McCall (1975), and Anthony Dickey (1979 - 1981). A quota for entry into law is introduced in 1972 and the degree is restructured into a three year Bachelor of Jurisprudence with an additional year of study required to obtain an LLB. Academic attire is abandoned. Law school staff are inspired by the arrival of jeans on campus, and denim remains an integral component of the wardrobes of many law academics to this very day.
In 1971, Robert French graduates and goes on to become the first WA Chief Justice of the High Court in 2008. In 2017, Robert French returns to UWA as an Adjunct Professor and will serve as UWA’s fifteenth Chancellor from 2018. Other notable graduates in this era include Moira Rayner (first female Commissioner on the WA Law Reform Commission), Wayne Martin (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia), Carolyn Martin (first female judge of the Family Court of WA), and Stephen Smith (Commonwealth Minister).
- Power ballads blare out across campus as the Law Library, like hairstyles, gets bigger. The Deans of the 80s are Richard Harding (1982 - 1984), Louis Proksch (1984 - 1987), and James O'Donovan (1987 - 1990). The Law School awards its first ever Doctor of Philosophy (Ph D) in Law to Cristopher Carr, and the first female President of the Blackstone Society, Sarah Beshar, graduates in 1982. Other notable graduates in this decade include Cheryl Edwardes (later Attorney-General of Western Australia 1993-1995), Michelle Gordon (appointed to the High Court in 2015), and Christine Wheeler (first female justice of the Supreme Court of WA). In 1986, for the first time since the establishment of the Law School, women graduates outnumber men, a trend which continues to the present day.
Between 1988 and the early 90s – over 60 years since the Law School was established in Whadjuk Noongar Country – the first Indigenous students graduate (Beau Hanbury, Eric Hayward, and David Maclean).
In 1992, the Law degree changes to become a five year degree that must be combined with another undergraduate qualification, and the Bachelor of Jurisprudence is abolished. UWA Law awards its first Masters of Laws (LLM) by coursework in 1991 and continues the tradition of having three Deans per decade: Stan Hotop (1990 – 1992), John Phillips (1993 – 1995) and Ian Campbell (1996 – 1999). Law students begin competing in the Phillip Jessup International Law Mooting Competition in 1992, resulting in the consumption of much time, energy and coffee and the generation of high levels of anxiety.
Notable graduates of the 90s include James Edelman (appointed as a Justice of the High Court in 2017), and Ben Wyatt, the third Indigenous Australian in Parliament and the first Aboriginal person to serve as Treasurer in any Australian government.
- 2000s and beyond
UWA Law School celebrates turning 75 in 2003 and the Jessup Moot team celebrate too after winning the world championship under the guidance of the late Dr Peter Johnston. William Ford serves as Dean from 2000 – 2010 and is succeeded by Stuart Kaye (2010-2012) and then the first female Dean, Erika Techera (2013 – 2016). UWA Law appoints its first female professor, Holly Cullen, in 2010 and its second female Dean, Natalie Skead, in 2017.
The Aboriginal pre-law program continues to increase Indigenous participation in law and from the inception of the program in 1994 to 2017, UWA Law graduates sixty Indigenous students, including a record six graduates in a single year in 2017 (Dylan Collard, Stephanie Councillor, Angela Crombie, Kelsi Forrest, Katja Gvozdenovic and Micah Kickett).
In the biggest change to law curriculum since 1928, the LLB is abolished in 2013 and a Juris Doctor is introduced. UWA Law embarks on a new era of teaching law as a postgraduate degree, and offers majors in Law & Society and Business Law within undergraduate Arts and Commerce degrees.
In 2013, UWA law student Akram Azimi – who fled Afghanistan as a refugee in 1999 – is named Young Australian of the Year in recognition of his dedication to social justice.
As UWA Law looks to its next chapter, it is determined to uphold the high academic standards and intellectual rigor of its courses and to ensure these courses are inclusive of students of all cultures, backgrounds and identities so as to create the critical thinkers of the future.