Woman Evatt, Elizabeth Andreas (1933 - )

AO, AC, Justice

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Jurist and Lawyer

Written by Larissa Halonkin, Australian National University

Elizabeth Evatt is an eminent Australian reformist lawyer and jurist. A leading trailblazer, her support of women's civil and human rights has left Australia with a significant and lasting legacy. Evatt became the first Chief Judge of the Family Court of Australia, the first female judge of an Australian federal court, the first female Member of the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and the first Australian to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Evatt was born in Sydney in 1933 into a family well recognised for its emphasis on leadership and public service, the daughter of Clive Evatt QC the prominent barrister and member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. Her grandfather Harry Andreas resided in Leura in a home called 'Leuralla' and was a man of independent means and an amateur inventor. She is the niece of Dr H. V. Evatt, the Leader of the Australian Labor Party, Justice of the High Court of Australia, Chief Justice of New South Wales, third President of the United Nations General Assembly and first Chairman of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission.

Educated at the Presbyterian Ladies' College in Pymble, Sydney, Evatt studied law at the University of Sydney, where she was the youngest law student ever accepted. She obtained a reputation as a quiet student who despite a fondness for practical jokes was studious and eminently successful, collecting prizes in each of her four years and graduating with first class honours in March 1955 becoming the first female student to win the University's Medal for Law (Evatt House, University of Newcastle).

At 21, Evatt was the youngest barrister admitted in New South Wales in 1955 (Evatt's niece a barrister, Argus). She then won a scholarship to Harvard University where she was awarded a LLM in 1956, before relocating to the United Kingdom where she set up chambers working as a barrister at the Inner Temple in London. From 1968 to 1973, Evatt worked at the England and Wales Law Commission under Lord Scarman. During this time she married barrister Robert Southan with whom she had two children.

In 1973 Evatt returned to Australia to take up an appointment as the first female Deputy President of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Between 1974 and 1977, she chaired the Royal Commission on Human Relationships. The final report, presented to Governor-General John Kerr in 1977, contained over 500 recommendations relating to contraception (access and use), unwanted pregnancies, childbirth, attitudes to sexuality, sexual knowledge, sex education, domestic violence, rape and the police and courts' treatment of rape victims, the changing roles of women, child care, child abuse, and homosexuality - especially discrimination faced by gays and lesbians. The report was highly controversial when released and many of its recommendations were not acted upon. However, under Evatt's leadership, the Royal Commission had a lasting influence. It brought taboo topics like abortion, rape and child abuse into public discussion, and opened up conversations about private life.

In 1976 Evatt was appointed as the inaugural Chief Judge of the Family Court, holding this position until 1988. In this position she presided over a major development of Australian law and achieved outstanding social reform. However, these achievements did not come easily. The Court was subject to the critique of the Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act in 1980 and saw violence on an unprecedented scale against its officers; one judge was murdered in 1980, two more injured by bombs and Pearl Watson, the wife of a judge, was killed by a bomb in 1984. It was Evatt's initiative that established the Pearl Watson Foundation aimed at promoting community understanding of Family Law (Evatt House, University of Newcastle; Family Law Conference). Of her time at the helm of the Family Court Evatt has written:

"I accepted the opportunity to apply social idealism to family breakdown - to encourage the spirit of reconciliation, to believe that parents would, if given the chance, put their children's interest above their own. The Law … would have a new purpose, that of applying principles of fairness and justice to people undergoing the misfortune of a broken marriage. The message may take a long time to learn, but if it can be learned, then perhaps it can be transferred into other areas of human conflict (Evatt House, University of Newcastle)."

In 1988 Evatt was appointed President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, a position she held until 1993. From 1995 to 1998, she served as a part-time Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. During this time she also held the position of Chancellor of the University of Newcastle from 1988-1994. Elected as a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 1984, she later chaired the Committee, from 1989 to 1991, and remained a member until 1992. Evatt was the first Australian to be elected to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 1992, serving as a member from 1993 to 2000. Between 1998 and 2007, she served two consecutive five-year terms as a judge of the World Bank Administrative Tribunal that determines staffing dispute and was also elected as a Commissioner of the International Committee of Jurists in April 2003.

Evatt's achievements have been acknowledged with national honours, including Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1982 for her service to law and, in 1995, a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) - Australia's highest civic honour - for her service to law, social justice and the promotion of international human rights (in particular, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination). She also received a Centenary Medal in 2001 for her significant contributions to Australian society (Women's Rights). In 1985 she was awarded an honorary degree of LL.D by the University of Sydney at a special ceremony, which celebrated the centenary of the first graduations by women at the University. In 1994, the Flinders University of South Australia conferred the same award.

In a further honour, in 2006 the Blue Mountains Community Legal Centre changed its name to the Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre. The Centre provides free legal advice to clients in the surrounding region, and Evatt serves as its patron (Elizabeth Evatt Community Centre). She is a Life Member of the Evatt Foundation, an organisation established as a memorial to her uncle, Dr H. V. Evatt, with the aim of advancing the highest ideals of the labour movement, such as equality, participation, social justice and human rights, and served as Vice-President from 1982-2012 (Evatt Foundation).

Evatt's contributions to Australia's civil society span her roles as a judge, law reformer, academic and international human rights advocate. Her leadership of significant national and international institutions and her key role in reforming society, particularly to empower women and overcome gender inequality in all its forms, provides an enduring legacy for future generations.

Published Resources


  • Swain, Shurlee, Born in hope : the early years of the Family Court of Australia, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2012. Details

Book Sections

  • Grahame, Emma, 'Evatt, Elizabeth', in Caine, Barbara et al. (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1998. Details


Newspaper Articles


  • Evatt, Elizabeth Andreas; Arnott, Felix; and Deveson, Anne, Royal Commission on Human Relationships, Comprises of five volumes., Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 21 November 1977. http://apo.org.au/node/34438. Details


Online Resources