Battle-Axes and Sticky-Beaks: Women and Jury Service in Western Australia 1898-1957
Walker, S. (2004) Battle-Axes and Sticky-Beaks: Women and Jury Service in Western Australia 1898-1957. In: 23rd Annual Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society Conference, 2-4th July 2004, Murdoch University.
In 1898 the Western Australian Jury Act was enacted. It provided that men between the ages of 21 and 60, who satisfied a property qualification, were eligible to serve on juries. There was no provision for women to sit on juries nor was the issue even debated in Parliament prior to the introduction of the 1898 Act. Between 1898 and 1956 six Bills to amend the Western Australian Jury Act were introduced into the State Parliament. Each Bill sought to provide women with the opportunity to serve on juries. However, it was only after a Select Committee Report in 1956 which, recommended major changes to the 1898 Jury Act, that amendments were introduced in 1957 and women were finally given the opportunity to serve on juries.
There has been little research on the history of women jurors in Australia and, in particular, on the legislative history of the inclusion of women in the Jury Acts of each State. This is in contrast to the extensive literature that is available on women jurors in countries such as the United States. This paper examines the attempts that were made to amend the Jury Act in Western Australia between 1898 and 1957. It examines why the Bills failed, and focuses on arguments that were used by politicians to justify their support or opposition to the proposed amendments to the Jury Act. Due to the limited range of materials on this issue, the paper draws almost exclusively on the records of Western Australian Parliamentary debates between 1898 and 1957. The paper is structured to reflect recurrent themes that occurred in the Parliamentary debates throughout the period under discussion. Part one considers debates that centred on women’s suitability for jury service. Part two discusses methods for registering women jurors. Part three focuses on the applicability of a property qualification for women jurors and Part four analyses the question of an age qualification for women jurors.
Western Australia was not the first State to allow women to sit on juries but it was unique amongst the States because it was the first State that admitted women on equal terms with men. However, this did not include Aboriginal women who did not gain the right to sit on juries until 1962. This was because the 1957 amendments to the W.A. Jury Act required that jurors had to be eligible to vote for the Legislative Assembly. Aboriginal people did not gain this right until 1962.
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