HL Deb 05 March 1918 vol 29 cc223-8

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill, for which I ask your favourable consideration, is identical in terms with the one which passed through all its stages in your Lordships' House last session. I hope that your Lordships will not think that in again inviting your attention to this subject I am asking you unprofitably to employ your time. It is quite true that during the last session the Government were unable to adopt this measure, or to grant facilities for its passage in another place. But I think that your Lordships will all recognise that conditions have considerably altered since the time when I introduced this Bill last year. In the interval an event has happened which at that time was only dimly seen upon the horizon, but which, I think every one will agree, has materially altered the atmosphere in which this Bill will find itself. Six millions of women have now been entrusted with the right of electing representatives to Parliament; and while last year there was behind this Bill, as I verily believe, the united opinion of the large bulk of women, that opinion had no means whatever of finding effective Parliamentary voice. At this hour there will be massed in support of this measure the feeling of those 6,000,000 of voters, who know better than any one the relentlessness of the struggle in which any woman finds herself who has to try and obtain her living by honourable means.

I do not propose to detain your Lordships again by a long discussion as to the circumstances which have rendered the introduction of this Bill necessary; but perhaps you will forgive me if I recall to your attention the peculiar circumstances in which the solicitors' profession stands. At this present moment admission to the ranks of solicitors is regulated by an Act of Parliament which provides that, after articles have been granted and certain examinations have been passed, the person who is successful may be entered by the Master of the Rolls on the Roll of Solicitors. That Statute, although it is couched in general language, has received a judicial interpretation which excludes from the generality of its words the whole of the female sex; and the consequence is that, in a profession that has for centuries been controlled by Statute, you find that, by Statute, women are excluded from any opportunity of entering into it and of practising its work.

The result of this is certainly very startling. Women are now fully qualified to discharge in a solicitor's office all legal business, with the possible exception of an appearance in the County Court—about which I am not so certain—and the administration of oaths, which is regulated by the grant of a licence by the Lord Chancellor, and which constitutes a solicitor a commissioner. Subject to those two comparatively trifling exceptions, I can think of no work in a solicitor's office which cannot at present be discharged by a woman, provided only that the woman is not doing it for her own profit. If she is doing it as the paid servant of a solicitor she can discharge it, and in certain instances she is discharging it efficiently and satisfactorily. If she attempts to discharge it in her own right and for her own profit, she commits a penal offence and can be sent to gaol. I find myself unable to think of any other occupation that is subject to such an extraordinary safeguard; and I ask your Lordships by this Bill to say that a woman who has qualified herself by study to practise the calling of a solicitor shall be able to do it on her own responsibility, for her own good, and for her own profit, and shall not be compelled, as she is to-day, always to work in it in a subordinate position.

On the last occasion when this Bill was before your Lordships, I referred to one or two striking instances which had come to my knowledge of women who to-day were, in fact, performing the work to which I have referred. Since then an instance has been placed before me of which I think your Lordships would be glad to hear. A solicitor wrote to me saying that he had begun very humbly, but had made his own way in the world and established a large and lucrative practice in a big manufacturing town. He had no sons, and in his work he was assisted by his daughter, who had been trained up to do the work just as he would have trained a boy. He said to me—and I think the appeal will make itself felt in the minds of your Lordships—"When I go, the whole goodwill of my business vanishes. Why is it that my daughter should be prevented from carrying it on?" I see no answer to that. Why is it? The woman has proved that she can do the work; what is the reason why she should be unable to carry on this work, and honourably to discharge the duty under the sanction of tint law?

I noticed in The Times of yesterday that a statement was made that questions had been put to me with regard to this matter. They had not been put to me excepting through the paper; but as I gather that they represent the organised opinion of certain legal societies upon this point, perhaps I may read what they say. It is said— The law societies in Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham have indicated reasons why the Bill should not be proceeded with at the present time. They recognise that this and other highly important questions affecting the industrial and economic position of women will have to be dealt with after the war, but argue that they should not be dealt with in sections. Then is put the following question— If, in the opinion of the distinguished lawyer who has introduced the Bill, women should be admitted to one branch of the profession, why not to the branch of the profession of which he is a member, and why exclude them consequentially from the Bench and from the numerous public appointments open only to members of the Bar? I will deal with that question in the inverse order in which it is put, and say a few words upon the latter part first. On the former occasion—if any of your Lordships who are present now were present then and have done me the honour of remembering anything that I said—your Lordships will remember that I pointed out that at the present moment there was nothing whatever on the Statute Book to prevent a woman from becoming a barrister; that there is nothing to prevent a woman from being admitted to one of the Inns of Court to-morrow if the Benchers chose to permit her entrance; and that though up to the present it is true that the Benchers have not granted that permission, there is nothing, as the law stands, to prevent its being done; and as, I think, only two cases have arisen in which the matter has been under their consideration, I am not sure that at the moment legislative interference is necessary to compel their action. But I pointed out then, and I desire to repeat now with all the emphasis that I can command, that I see no reason whatever why women should not be admitted to the Bar, and I believe that the passage of this Bill is the surest and the most certain way of effecting that reform. It will be impossible, in my opinion, if once this Bill is passed and becomes operative and women begin to work under it, for the Benchers of the Inns to continue the attitude they have hitherto adopted, and prevent their entrance. If they do, then it may be a matter for consideration whether legislative interference—which I trust will be unnecessary—should compel them to act.

The questions that are suggested here, similar to those suggested by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack on the occasion when this Bill was last before the House, do not appal me in the least. If, in fact, a woman is by her quality preeminently fitted to discharge any public duty, and is better fitted for that purpose than any male competitor, I should like to know why, in the public interest, she should not be allowed to discharge it. We may, as men, flatter ourselves that they never will be in the position in which they will do it better than we, but if there were a woman who, by her outstanding qualities, could discharge judicial duties, or any other duties, better than a man, I cannot understand why the public should be deprived of her work. It seems to me that the suggestions that a woman might be eligible for this, or might be eligible for that, but that she has never hitherto occupied the position, and therefore that she never can—those suggestions appear to me to be nothing but bogies with which you frighten children. They do not seem to me to have any reality whatever in them; and I say quite sincerely that I believe there are members of your Lordships' House who are accustomed to discharge the important duties—duties which are too often underrated—associated with the position of a magistrate who could point among your own immediate personal acquaintanceship to women whom you would be glad to see associated with you in the discharge of your magisterial duties. There are numbers of eases affecting young girls which appear with lamentable frequency before the magisterial Benches, in which I am certain that the view of a wise experienced woman would be of immense assistance in helping in the discharge of the painful and difficult duties cast upon the Bench. The point of this Bill is that women should be allowed to try, that is all. If they fail, they have had their opportunity. and they will no longer be able to say that they have been shut out from a chance which they had of winning their way in the world by the operation of the Statute which appears to them, as it appears to me, to be harsh and unreasonable.

The rest of the suggestion is that this Bill ought to be dealt with, with other highly important questions affecting the industrial and economic position of women, after the war. What connection has a Bill of this kind with the industrial and economic position of women, outside the particular class of operations to which the Bill relates? How far does it affect the right of women to work in factories and workshops, and all those employments which are included in the general phrase "industrial and economic position of women"? There is no other certain occupation of which I can think where the entrance is rigidly defined by Act of Parliament. In every case, whatever woman's difficulties may be, they are not due to the existence of a Statute, and the whole purpose of this Bill is to remove the statutory difficulty placed in a woman's way through her being unable to obtain, on terms of equality with men, admission to this profession which the Statute safeguards. I can understand that anybody who did not want the Bill to pass might very well suggest that it should be associated with a number of other difficult and complicated questions, but in truth this is an isolated question and stands by itself, and I trust that your Lordships will regard it as wholly distinct in considering whether or not this Bill should be read a second time.

I remember also that on the last occasion the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack was a little uneasy about this Bill for something of the same reasons as those which are referred to in this extract that I have read; but he had anxieties which do not appear here. I remember his mentioning the fact that if women were admitted under this Bill, and entrance to the Bar become possible, it would result that they would have to eat their dinners in company with men, and that appeared to strike him with awe. My Lords, I would like to ask you to consider just for a moment all that it means. In a large public hall—some of the biggest and finest halls in London—some girl who will be uneasy and probably not a little shy will find herself associated with some forty or fifty and maybe eighty men, who, what- I ever their defects may be, have always prided themselves on belonging to a profession of gentlemen, with whom she would eat a humble dinner under the eyes of some ten or twenty Benchers at the upper table. What is it that appals and frightens the Lord Chancellor in this prospect? After all, men and women do eat dinners together at the present moment without any very terrible consequences ensuing. Why this particular form of extremely uninteresting dinner should be assumed to have these dire results I am unable to understand. Whatever other associations with women may be productive of disaster, I should have thought that this public and dietetic intercourse was harmless.

The only argument which was really an argument used on the last occasion was that although this may be a very good measure, now is not the right moment for its introduction. One asks why? The answer is, of course, that a number of men connected with the profession are nobly and honourably discharging their duties away from England. I realise this; but I pointed out on the last occasion, and I trust your Lordships will forgive me if I repeat it, that if the Bill passes it will take a minimum of three years, and in the ordinary course five years, before any woman can become competent to practise, and therefore she cannot be brought into competition with the people who are away. I believe, however, that when these young men come back they will come back with a very much wider outlook on life than that with which they left England, and that they will be unwilling to stand in the way of women to whose services and devotion they owe so much. But, in truth, if any one is opposed to any particular measure, now is always the worst possible moment for its introduction. If anybody desires a measure to pass, now is the best possible moment for its introduction. I submit to your Lordships that now is the moment when this Bill should go through, and I trust that your Lordships will once more give it the honour of your favourable consideration, and that it will be possible to attribute to the action of your Lordships' House the tardy act of justice which this Bill will effect.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Buckmoster.)

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday next.