17 April 2019

‘Peculiarly qualified’

By Miranda Marshall, Director, Hayes + Storr.

‘Nobody thinks that this bill is going to flood the legal profession with women. It will enable a few women who are peculiarly qualified, to earn an honourable living’. This was said 100 years ago when the bar on women solicitors was lifted, by Lord Buckmaster a supporter of their cause.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 (the Act) allowed women to become solicitors, barristers, magistrates and jurors for the first time. It also enabled women to enter other professions, such as accountancy, and the higher ranks of the civil service.

Women were still not permitted in many professions, including the foreign and diplomatic services. Judges were still allowed to appoint all-male juries. Married women were still prohibited in many professions. My grandmother had to give up being a teacher in the 1930s when she married, only to be begged to return to the profession when the men went off to war. As an aside, as recently as the 1960s a firm in King’s Lynn forbade the wives of its solicitors to have any paid employment, as it was considered to reflect badly on their husband.

The Act came to pass through political expediency as a way of killing off more radical proposals. These could have given women the right to vote on the same footing as men and even have allowed them into the House of Lords. Those advances were introduced in 1928 and 1958, respectively.

We should be thankful to Bertha Cave for her unsuccessful application to join one of the barristers’ Inns of Court (Gray’s) in 1903. Christabel Pankhurst had a law degree but was unable to practice, so put her energies and talents elsewhere, including defending herself and other suffragettes in court in 1908.

It was the case of Bebb v The Law Society (1914) which started progress. Gwyneth Bebb was represented by Lord Buckmaster, when he made the statement at the start of this article. There were MPs who argued in favour of the ‘new perspective’ that women would bring to the legal profession, rather than the ‘honourable, underpaid, overworked and ill-fed’ traditional female professions of governess, nurse and schoolmistress. The Great War had produced a sea change in attitudes.

In 1919 the doors were opened for Carrie Morrison, Ivy Williams, Helena Normanton and others to become pioneers in the legal profession. Women everywhere were allowed on juries.

Women now make up the majority of the solicitors’ profession and represent over 60% of new admissions.

This article aims to supply general information, but it is not intended to constitute advice. Every effort is made to ensure that the law referred to is correct at the date of publication and to avoid any statement which may mislead. However no duty of care is assumed to any person and no liability is accepted for any omission or inaccuracy. Always seek our specific advice.

If you would like further advice on this matter please contact Miranda on 01328 710210. If you require advice on any other legal matter call 01328 710210 or email law@hayes-storr.com.