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100 Years of Women in the Law

Posted on July 24th 2019

Last year, for the first time, the number of female practising certificate holders (50.1%), was greater than the number of males. Women practising law is on the up and this year marks 100 years since they were first allowed entry into the legal profession.

Limited jobs for women before 1919

Before 1919 the choice of jobs for women was limited, you could be a governess, school mistress or a nurse or you could work in laundry, dressmaking or domestic work. There were many jobs that you simply were not allowed to do as a woman.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 changed this, allowing women to become accountants, solicitors, barristers, magistrates and jurors. Just the year before the Education Act 1918 had raised the school leaving age to 14 and so women were better educated and the 1919 Act made it easier for women to attend university, although it was only really the middle class women who were able to do this.

The Suffragette Movement

The passing of the 1919 Act was not enough on its own to make a major change to the number of women taking up law professions. However, the suffragette movement made good ground and even in 1908 suffragette leader, Christabel Pankhurst defended herself and other suffragettes following their arrest, she had a law degree but was unable to practise at the time.

Bebb v The Law Society

The 1919 Act came about after the test case of Bebb v The Law Society which found that legislation in parliament was needed to allow women to practice law.

“I can’t hear you over your trousers”

The numbers did not change overnight and there were more obstacles to overcome. Indeed, one of our founding partners, Mrs Oliver recalled when she was first admitted to the bar women were not allowed to wear trousers in court. Indeed, there is the story of a female barrister attending court in a trouser suit who, when she addressed the court, the Judge said “I can’t hear you Miss”, she spoke louder and the Judge’s response was the same, she repeated herself louder again, nearly shouting. The Judge responded saying “I can’t hear you over your trousers” or something to that effect. In fact it was not until 1995 and the Lord Chancellor’s Practice Direction that women were able to wear trousers in court.

Steady increase in women in the legal profession

Thankfully, that is long in the past and there has been a steady increase in women in the legal profession ever since and now the numbers are greater than ever.

This is echoed in the staff here at Oliver and Co Solicitors. Currently almost 80% of our entire staff and more than half of our solicitors are female – imagine if the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 had never been passed.

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