With the recent International Women’s Day, together with the centenary of women being granted the right to vote, we look at the development of the role of women in the legal profession…
On 10th December 1913 The Court of Appeal ruled in the Case of Bebb v Law Society that the entire sex of women failed to fall within the definition of ‘person’ in the Solicitors Act 1843. As a result, Gwyneth Bebb, a first class law student from the University of Oxford, was not permitted to sit the Law Societies preliminary examination with the consequence that she could not enter the legal profession.
The previous year Miss Bebb sent the Law Society notice that she was going to present herself on 5th and 6th of February 1913 for the preliminary examination. The Law Society informed her that she would not be admitted because she was a woman. Miss Bebb brought an action against the Law Society stating that she was a ‘person’ within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843. The Law Societies defence was that their refusal was in accordance with the law.
Section 2 of the Solicitors Act 1843 stated that;
“No person shall act as an Attorney or Solicitor […] unless such Person shall after the passing of this Act be admitted and enrolled and otherwise duly qualified as an Attorney or Solicitor, pursuant to the Directions and Regulations of this Act.”
Justin Joyce made the decision not to accept that Miss Bebb fell within the definition of a “person” and ruled that women were incapable of carrying out a public function in common law, a disability that must remain “unless and until” Parliament changed the law; in other words, women were not permitted to become solicitors.
Due to criticism of the law and pressure from the media Parliament legislated and in 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force. Three years later in 1922 four women passed the preliminary examination: Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes. Carrie Morrison became the first ever female solicitor in the UK 18th December 1922.
The 1919 act was a significant victory for women in the middle of suffragette campaigning. Maud Crofts was herself a very prominent figure in the suffragette campaign. Another suffrage campaigner was Chrystal Macmillan, an active member of the peaceful National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who went on to become one of the earliest women solicitors after 1919. In November 1908, in the midst of the suffrage campaign and after women had been banned from Central Lobby in Parliament because there were so many suffragette protests there, Chrystal famously became the first woman to address the House of Lords.
By 1931 only 100 women had qualified as solicitors. The price of entering such a profession was a sticking point for most. At that time wealthy parents were willing to invest in their sons, but paying for their daughters to pursue a career was very rare. A woman’s place was still very firmly in the home.
But progress did begin to slowly build; in 1945 Dame Rose Helbron was the first women to lead an English murder case. Later that same year she made history again when she appeared against another female barrister, Eileen MacDonald, the first case in which two women barristers had appeared on opposing sides.
In 1962 the first female was appointed to the judiciary; Dame Elizabeth Lane was appointed in the County Court. She was called to the bar in 1940 at Inner Temple and become the third female King’s Counsel in 1950.
In 1970, following in the academic world, Claire Palley became the first female law professor to be appointed at a UK university at Queen’s University Belfast.
Over time women have become more prominent in the legal profession, in some areas more than others. Unfortunately it is at the Bar and in the judiciary where women remain under represented. In the field of solicitors however the industry has made tremendous strides towards diversification.
Percentage of women solicitors:
- 1957: 1.94%
- 1977: 7.33%
- 1997: 32.75%
- 2017: 48%
The Solicitors Regulatory Authority documents that the highest percentage of women solicitors appear in mid-size firms which have six to nine partners. In these firms, 66% of solicitors are female and this has grown over the past four years (from 60% in 2014). Unfortunately in the largest firms (50 plus partners), only 29% of partners are female. It wasn’t until 1981 when Dame Catherine Fiona Woolf DBE JP became the first female partner at city firm CMS Camerson McKena. This illustrates that women have been reaching the highest level of the profession for almost 40 years yet remain under represented at larger firms.
In contrast, in September 2017 Brenda Marjorie Hale, Lady Hale of Richmond was appointed as the successor to Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury as the President of the UK Supreme Court. The highest position of the legal industry in the country.
If Miss Bebb were alive today I’m sure she would be thrilled to know that the most prestigious legal position in our country is held by a woman. Hopefully by celebrating women like Miss Bebb who believed in herself when the profession she sought to break into didn’t, young women can be inspired to aim high and never let anyone tell them she can’t… because she most certainly can.
By Jack Macfarlane