One hundred years of women in law

This post has been contributed by Charlotte Crilly, Teaching Fellow for Undergraduate Laws and Module Convenor for Legal System and Method.

Two women at work having a meeting.

Why is diversity important to the legal profession? This is one of the questions that Lady Hale recently considered in an extra-judicial speech to celebrate 100 years of women in the law.

In Chapter 5 of the Legal System and Method module guide, you’ll learn about diversity in the judiciary. Diversity in this context means that the judiciary must as far as possible be representative of the people it serves, for example in relation to gender, race, sexual orientation, social background etc.

Lady Hale’s focus in her speech is on women in the law. This year marks 100 years since the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, which allowed women for the first time to enter the legal profession in the United Kingdom. Before 1919, women were denied the right to qualify as lawyers:

  • Eliza Orme gained a law degree from the University of London in 1888 but was not allowed to qualify as a legal practitioner.
  • Margaret Howie Strang Hall applied in 1900 to take the Scottish examinations to become a solicitor. When she was refused, she applied to the Scottish Court of Session who held that she could not be considered a “person” permitted under the Law Agents (Scotland) Act 1873 to become a lawyer (Hall v Incorporated Society of Law Agents 1901 9 SLT 150).
  • In the famous case of Bebb v The Law Society [1914] 1 Ch 286, Gwyneth Bebb and 3 other women were told by the English courts that women were not “persons” for the purposes of the Solicitors Act 1843, so they could not become solicitors.

Even after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, there were initially very few women working in the legal profession:

  • In the 1920s, only 8 or 9 women were admitted as solicitors and in the 1930s the average was 16 a year.
  • By 1957, only 356 women held practising certificates as solicitors in England and Wales, out of a total of around 19,000 practising certificates held.

Of course now many more women study law and qualify as solicitors or barristers. In 2017, the proportion of women admitted as solicitors was 62% and the proportion of women becoming barristers was 51.5%. Unfortunately this has not yet been matched by the proportion of women holding senior positions in law firms, which is around one third. The proportion of women who are QCs (senior barristers) is around 16% of all QCs.

Lady Hale suggests four reasons why diversity in the legal profession and the judiciary matters:

  • The rule of law requires that lawyers and judges must reflect society as far as possible, and women make up half of society.
  • The guiding principles of law are justice, fairness and equality. These values should be embodied in the lawyers who administer the law.
  • Equality of opportunity. This benefits not just individuals but society – otherwise we waste the talents that are available to us.
  • The law itself will be enhanced by a greater diversity among legal practitioners. The law is not always a neutral set of principles and rules, and a woman’s experience can bring a different perspective to that of a man.

Do you find these arguments convincing? Why do you think that diversity in the legal profession and the judiciary is important? Whatever the arguments are for diversity, it is undeniable that women have made huge strides in the legal profession since the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, although a lot more progress still needs to be made.

Resources

You can read Lady Hale’s speech on the Supreme Court website.

You can see a Timeline of women in the law on the website of the First 100 Years project. The First 100 Years is project charting the journey of women in law since 1919, which is supported by the Law Society, the Bar Council and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. You can also follow the project on Twitter @First100years

News and opinion on the University of London website, ‘The Portia effect: Early women law students and their legacy’ by Laura Noakes.

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