- Honour Roll
Dame Roma Mitchell was born in Adelaide on 2 October 1913, to Harold and Maude Mitchell. Her father, a lawyer was sent to fight in France and he died in action when Roma was four. Her mother was untrained and struggled to support her two daughters, but it strengthened her belief in the importance of education, so she encouraged them to strive to reach university.
Roma was keen to be a lawyer so she studied hard at St Aloysius College and eventually won a scholarship to study law at the University of Adelaide. Even though her results were outstanding Roma was not confident of securing work in a law firm, however in 1934, at 21 years of age she found a job at an Adelaide city practice. She was subsequently admitted to the bar and for the next 28 years she represented clients in the courts. Roma specialised in matrimonial cases and eventually was promoted to partnership of a firm.
In 1962, she was chosen as the Australian representative at a United Nation's seminar on the Status of Women in Family Law. She was appointed a Queen's Counsel that year too. As a QC she supported change to legislation to enable women to sit on juries and advocated equal pay for equal work. In 1965, she was appointed Supreme Court Judge, an honour tinged with the sadness of having to leave the bar. After much arguing about how she should be addressed, it was agreed to call her Justice Mitchell.
From 1981 to 1986 she was the first Chair of the Human Rights Commission and she used this position to champion the rights of disadvantaged people such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. When she retired in 1983 she was still the only woman judge of a Supreme Court in Australia. She was immediately appointed Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, thereby achieving another first for an Australian woman.
From 1991-96 she served as Governor of South Australia and pushed the causes for the homeless and disadvantaged members of society. In 1992, she achieved the highest honour for an Australian when awarded a Companion in the Order of Australia. In June 1999, Governor General Sir William Deane unveiled a life-size bronze statue of Roma in front of Government House. She also was made a Commander of the French Legion d'Honneur and Commander of the Victorian Order.
She died of bone cancer on 5 March 2000. At her funeral Sir William Deane described her life as " - a life of wonderful achievements, including an incomparable number of nationally significant firsts, a life which blazed a trail for all Australian women, in law, in government, in academic life, in public and philanthropic service. A life which is truly an inspiration for all Australians".