- Honour Roll
Joan Mavis Rosanove was born in Ballarat in 1896. She was admitted to practice on 2 June 1919, and became the first woman barrister in Victoria when she signed the bar roll on 10 September 1923.
She faced prejudice and rejection by the otherwise all-male bar, and on many occasions in her practice, by the all-male bench. In 1925, when an opportunity arose for her to secure chambers in Selbourne Chambers from her colleague Philip Jacobs, the other tenants protested, outraged at the thought of a woman's presence amongst them. The directors rejected Philip's temporary lease offer to Joan, threatening to terminate his lease.
Joan decided to leave the bar. She removed her name from the Roll of Counsel and went back to practice as a solicitor and advocate in the fields of criminal law and divorce law. She specialised in defending women, and appeared on two occasions on behalf of women accused of murder, one of whom was allegedly a ';backyard abortionist'. Although the women were not acquitted, in both cases they were found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. By 1930, Joan had become renowned for fighting for women's interests in divorce cases, where the law operated in favour of husbands.
Joan was known for speaking out about injustice against women and people of non-English speaking backgrounds. She was approached to defend the Jewish Czech journalist Egon Kisch, in the now famous constitutional law case. Apart from her solicitor and court duties, Joan took an active role in visiting the ship where Egon Kisch was being held on a number of occasions in order to secure his release.
On 7 October 1949 Joan re-signed the bar roll and worked exclusively as a barrister. She also succeeded in her long-held ambition of working from Selbourne Chambers, after 25 years of exclusion. Joan was a strong advocate for women's access and entry to professional life, as well as equal pay. She did not believe women who married should have to remain at home, to be supported by their husbands.
She publicly urged women's organisations and women lawyers to work for more rational divorce laws which would reverse the beneficial treatment received by men. In 1954, Joan researched and prepared a report, which was published in the Australian Law Journal, on the divorce laws and proposed changes. Despite her seniority and excellence as a barrister, she was turned down as Queen's Counsel when she applied in 1954. Joan continued to apply to take silk but was denied every time, while her younger, less experienced male colleagues were becoming Queen's Counsel and judges.
It was not until 1965, that Joan was granted silk. Joan became Australia's second woman Queen's Counsel. Joan continued her work, and continued to fight prejudice and discrimination against women, both within the law and outside it. The third generation of an Australian legal family, Joan, at the height of her career, was reputed to have one of the biggest divorce practices in Australia. She was a childhood friend of the 'great' Bob Menzies, who later became Prime Minister of Australia, and a galaxy of eminent lawyers and judges.
Yet she rubbed shoulders also with a rogue's gallery of criminals she defended in scores of trials. She appeared in three murder cases; the only woman barrister at that time who had been briefed to defend persons accused of murder.
Modern divorce reforms have been based on her recommendations. She had a deep faith in the sanctity of marriage - yet she handled the legal break-up of thousands of marriages. Joan retired in 1969 and died on 8 April 1974. On 14 April 2000, the new Victorian Chambers were named after her and in her honour.
Joan not only fought for women's rights and justice as a professional, but within her own profession. Without her the bar and the legal society would have taken longer to begin to accept women in the profession.
Reviewed 26 May 2022