HL Deb 11 March 1919 vol 33 cc589-600

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, on two former occasions I have been so fortunate as to secure the approval of your Lordships to the passage of a measure designed to remove from women the disqualifications that leave hitherto hindered them in entering the profession of solicitors. On one of those occasions the measure passed without a division; on the other it passed by a considerable majority; and on each there was a debate in which Lord Halsbury, Lord Finlay, Lord Loreburn, Lord Sumner, and Lord Selborne took part, so that I think your Lordships will agree with me when I say that the subject was well and adequately debated. If, therefore, this Bill did no more that once more to ask you to consider and approve the measure that has been twice before your consideration I should say few of the very briefest sentences in its support.

But, for reasons that I will explain directly, I have thought it desirable to extend the measure, and the Bill for which I now ask a Second Reading attempts to remove both the disqualifications that prevent a woman from practising as a solicitor, and any disqualifications, if such there be, that prevent her from practising as a barrister. In other words, it throws open the doors of the legal profession to women without distinction. On the former occasions there was but little opposition to the merits of the measure. I think those of you who remember what then took place will bear me out when I say that the real objection that was taken was rather on the ground of its being inexpedient, at a moment when the war was on, to pass a measure of this kind than upon the ground that the measure ought not to be passed at all. I did my best to remove that feeling of uneasiness by pointing out that, even if the measure were passed at once, a period which in special cases would be a minimum of three years, and in the ordinary case of live, must elapse before any woman could be admitted to practice as a solicitor. But the duration of the war was then indefinite, and people were unaware how long it might last, or how profoundly it might affect the fortunes of those who were engaged in the legal profession, and one or two—notably, I think, Lord Finlay and Lord Halsbury—were anxious for that reason that the measure should be postponed. In substance that objection has passed away, and with it all real considered objection to the measure, so far as it relates to solicitors, has, I submit, been removed.

So far as this measure affects barristers, the matter stands on a different footing. As to solicitors, as I have pointed out more than once, women were prevented from entering by reason of the construction that had been given to Acts of Parliament which regulate the profession of solicitor; but with regard to a barrister no such Statutes exist. Admission to the Bar has all through our legal history been obtained by admission to one of the Inns of Court, a qualification of a recent date imposed by passing examinations and calling to the Bar by the Benchers of the Inn. It was my belief that if the measure passed so far as solicitors were concerned no further difficulty would be raised by the Inns in the way of women entering the Inns as students. It would be quite plain that no distinction could in justice be made as between one branch of the profession and the other; and I thought it possible that the Inns might take what I regarded as the courageous course of saying that in the exercise of their unlimited and undoubted discretion they would admit women to the Inns without further delay. But the Inn of which I have the honour to be a Bencher, Lincoln's Inn, took another view. They said that the admission of women to be barristers was part of a wider national question, and that they did not think it was right for the Inns to act in a matter of that kind without receiving direction from Parliament. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate the feeling that prompted them in that course. It did not involve any acceptance of the view that they had not the power, if they wished to exercise it, but that they thought they ought not to exercise such a power until Parliament had given them some indication that Parliament regarded it as in the national interest that women should be admitted. I have therefore included in a second clause a provision enabling women to be admitted to the Inns as well as to be admitted as solicitors.

Nobody thinks that the passage of 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 in the practice of the law. So far as it affects barristers, it may enable a few women to help some of their less fortunate sisters in some of the hazards and perils that peculiarly encompass a woman's path. And if it succeeded in doing this, I am sure it would meet with your Lordships' approval. For the more certain you can be that all views of a matter are placed before any tribunal which is to administer the law the more safe you may feel that justice will be done. The simple purpose of this Bill is to remove a disqualification on the ground of sex which, I submit, should no longer hinder women from using their energies and talents for the best interests of themselves, and, as I believe, of the nation. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, as this Bill does not in form apply to the Sister Isle, I have some diffidence in addressing your Lordships on the principle of the Bill. Anyone, whether an Irishman or an Englishman, who has had experience in the practice of the law or who has occupied a judicial position, must of necessity take a considerable interest in this proposal. It comes home to me all the more strongly because, not very long before I had tile honour of being a member of your Lordships' House, this matter and all the cases and decisions with regard to it came before the Irish Courts in a case which has since got into the books; and naturally one could not help forming a very definite opinion in a general sense upon this question, because time decision of the English Courts with regard to the admission of women to the profession of solicitors was naturally one of the subjects of debate.

The fact that this Bill has substantially, so far as the principle is concerned, been discussed so frequently before your Lordships' House and has met with your Lordships' approval makes it quite unnecessary at any length, as the noble and learned Lord who introduced the Bill pointed out, to enlarge upon the reasonableness of this measure. But I think it is not amiss that any one who has been brought into close contact with the question of legal practice should at any rate express his view; and my view I will say at once is one of wholehearted approval of the proposal of the noble and learned Lord.

The only reason why I trouble your Lordships is that. I suggest that. possibly in one respect the Bill has not gone quite far enough. Once women receive an education which undoubtedly fits them to take up a position requiring erudition, learning, tact, and skill, it is perfectly idle to exclude them from the practice of a profession which demands those requirements; and I altogether endorse what the noble and learned Lord has said that the admission of a few women to the profession in question will not create a great revolution, or do anything except to remove a very real grievance. But I suggest with diffidence to the noble and learned Lord that this Bill as framed does not cover one of the grievances which I think is most keenly felt.

In a case which is now almost ancient history—the case of Beresford-Hope versus Sandhurst—which arose in connection with the qualification of women to exercise a certain franchise, according to my recollection, Lord Esher laid down as being the law two very strong propositions. These propositions were, first, that neither by the Common Law nor by the Constitution of this country can a woman be entitled to exercise any public function; and, second, where you have a Statute which deals with the exercise of public functions, unless that Statute expressly gives power to women to exercise that function it is to be taken that the power is confined to men. The manner in which in concrete form this question arose was this. A very humble post indeed, that of petty sessions clerk to an Irish petty sessions court, was given to a woman by the justices who had power to confer it. It is not a very elevated position; it is one which could be discharged very readily by a boy not very long out of an intermediate school, except possibly in a few of the larger cities and towns. But the majority of the Court, of which I had the honour to be a member, held that, on the construction of the Statute, as there was no power given to a woman to exercise the functions of petty sessions clerk, there was inherent evidence from the Statutes themselves that she could not possibly be appointed; and the members of the Court deplored that result.

I would point out that the mere removal of the disqualifications of a woman to be admitted as a barrister or solicitor would not necessarily entitle her as such to compete for those public offices—some of them possibly small public offices—to which otherwise as barrister or solicitor she would be entitled; and it may be necessary to go a little further if real effect is to be given to a very commonsense principle, at any rate so far as it affects the position of a woman who might wish such a post as that of petty sessions clerk. I do not, suggest positively that this is absolutely so, because personally, with all respect to the great Judge who gave the decision, I think it may well be that he went a little too far. At the same time I suggest that if this Bill passes into Committee, in order to give real effect to the principle of it may be necessary to go a little further.


My Lords, it may be convenient for me to make a few observations on this subject on behalf of the Government, having regard to what was said by Lord Finlay when he sat on the Woolsack on the last occasion on which this Bill was under discussion. At that time, as Lord Buckmaster has said, the war was still in progress, and no human being could tell how long it was likely to last or in what ultimate condition it was likely to leave the legal profession. In those circumstances my noble and learned friend Lord Finlay, in an argument with most of which at that time I confess I agreed, took the view that the moment was not opportune for a change of such considerable magnitude.

I confess that, as Attorney-General, when the proposal was brought forward at the general meeting of the Bar, I took the view that it would have had the effect without the interposition of Parliament of passing a recommendation by the members of the Bar that women should be admitted. As Attorney-General I opposed that on the ground that it was not a convenient moment for the members of the Bar themselves to take such a step at a time when so many of the members of the profession were serving in His Majesty's Forces. The circumstances today are in many respects wholly changed. Lord Buckmaster has reminded your Lordships that this Bill now rests on a broader basis. I must admit that it seemed to me he was exposed to a good deal of criticism, some of it ill-founded, some of it better founded, as long as his Bill dealt solely with the case of solicitors. The criticism was generally passed by the solicitors' branch of the profession, "Why do you not deal with the Bar, to which you belong; why do you confine these beneficent reforms to the other branch of the profession?" Lord Buckmaster has given an explanation of the course he adopted. He said that in his view the Benchers of each Inn were always at liberty to call women to the Bar without legislation. That may be so. But it seems to me it was not a very satisfactory position in which to leave the Benchers of each Inn, without any guidance at all from Parliament at the very moment when Parliament was not only giving guidance but enforcing compulsion upon the other branch of the profession.

I therefore think that Lord Buckmaster has taken an extremely wise course in making it clear that the scope of the present proposals comprehends both branches of the profession. Lord Buckmaster has told your Lordships something of the attitude of the Benchers of his own Inn. I have made some inquiries on the point, and I am in a position to assure your Lordships, in relation to the Benchers, I think, of all the Inns, that while I cannot pretend that they are avid of this change, or that they would have formed themselves into professional associations to agitate for its introduction, at the same time I am confident of this that if it be the will, as I anticipate it may prove to be, of Parliament that this great and memorable change should take place, the Benchers of the various Inns will loyally co-operate in order to give effect to the wishes of Parliament.

I am not one of those who would seek in any way to ignore the significance of the decision which is being taken to-day, and I say plainly that, as you will have surmised from the speeches made during the Election by leading members of the Government, in the changed circumstances of the day the Government welcome this proposal; and if your Lordships should give a Second Reading to this Bill and pass it through its remaining stages in this session of Parliament, it is the hope of the Government that they may be able to give it such assistance in another place as will render it highly probable that it will pass into law. My Lords, I cannot believe that any among your number, or many among your number, who think for a moment of the lessons of the last few years, can entertain any doubt that this decision is both a wise and necessary one. Much has been said, and your Lordships need no instruction upon that point, of the immense contribution which has been made by women to this war, and your Lordships will not have failed to notice that it has been rendered in circumstances which of all others would at first sight appear to be the least suitable for feminine contribution. It has none the less been ungrudgingly and most efficiently given, and very few, I think, will doubt that it would have been impossible to win the war had it not been for the contribution made by women.

My noble and learned friend Lord Sumner, when this Bill was under discussion on the previous occasion, said it appeared to him that the general contribution which had been made by women had very little to do with the special question whether women should be allowed to practice as solicitors. I do not agree with that view. The argument appears to me to be a fortiori. If a contribution of so much value has been made by women in occupations for which at first sight they would appear to possess no special attribute at all, there seems every ground for thinking that to a purely intellectual profession, in which special aptitude and quickness are required, there can be no reason why they should be denied access. When once it is conceded that the test of entry into an intellectual profession is by the door of examination, surely it is far beyond the day when a distinction or barrier based exclusively upon sex can be maintained or defended. In these circumstances it is the hope of the Government that your Lordships will send this Bill to another place, and it is the desire and intention of the Government to give such assistance to it as is in their power.


My Lords, I recognise quite as fully as Lord Buckmaster, or the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, that the result of recent events and the trend of public opinion is such that, even if I desired to do so, which I do not, I could not offer any successful opposition to the passage of this Bill or to its obtaining a Second Reading. My only object in addressing a few words to your Lordships this afternoon is to refer to matters of detail which interest the profession. I think it should be known on this occasion that, so far as I have been able to ascertain—and it is rather corroborated by what fell from the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack—I should not anticipate that among the profession there would be found any desire to obstruct or prevent the alteration of the law which is embodied in the present Bill. Whether it will in effect be of much advantage to women, I confess I feel considerable doubt.

I am, as it happens, serving on a Committee of my own Bench, as to the effect of the admission of women to the profession of the Bar in foreign countries, and the result of our inquiries is to show that so far it has not been a profession in which women have attained any success or indeed in which they have entered much into competition. Whether the same thing will occur in this country when women are admitted to practice I cannot tell; but as far as the signs go, I do not think it can be said that they will affect the conduct of law proceedings to any large extent. I am quite sure, and not only for that reason, that it would be very unjust, if at any time there were opposition to this change, that such opposition should be attributed to a desire on the part of existing members of the profession to protect their material interests, because I do not think they, any more than I, anticipate that those interests are likely to be at all seriously affected thereby.

What I desire to call attention to this afternoon is that the Bill of Lord Buckmaster contemplates admission of women to the Bar by exactly the same steps and procedure as apply to men at the present time—namely, entrance as a student, becoming a member of an Inn of Court, and after keeping terms and passing examinations then being called by the Benchers to the Bar. That may be, and on the whole I think it is, the shortest and best way of dealing with it. But there are people who hold other views, and it might he quite conceivable that the way of doing it would have been to have thrown the profession of the Bar open to women merely on passing to the satisfaction of examiners certain examinations identical with the examinations for men. I am not asking that, because I do not think it is my own view, but I have heard it expressed and I think it is held by many people. Life in an Inn may be compared with college life to a modified extent, and it is not usual, at any rate in any of the big Universities, to have women and men members of the same College. I have heard the opinion expressed that this might have been done in a different way, but it having been done in this way, and I think rightly, it is a matter which very closely concerns the Inns of Court. The Inns of Court are responsible or the discipline and control of the Bar, and I think that before this Bill comes to its final stage—in some way or other, if they can do it, and if they are in agreement—corporate counsel might be obtained by the many representatives of the Inns of this House as to either regulations or slight amendments that would come before the House from those who have a knowledge of the conditions.

I am told there is no possible objection to telling the House what is being done. A lady applied for admission to Lincoln's Inn, but, having regard to the opinion of the Judges in 1903, the Benchers were of opinion that, whether they would otherwise have called her or not, it was not open to there to do so. Another application of the same character has recently been made, and it came before the various inns of Court, including the one of which I have the honour to be a Bencher. It was referred—properly referred, as it seemed to me—to a standing joint committee which deals with the discipline and interests of the Bar. That committee passed a resolution on the subject. Of course, it was only a resolution of the committee, which may or may not be accepted by the Inn, but the House should know it, and I desire to show that there is no apparent tendency at present to do otherwise than co-operate in working the change if Parliament should think it should be decided upon.

I understand that there is no possible objection to reading the resolution of the joint committee, which is a recommendation to the Inns they represent. It is as follows— Resolved, That the Committee are of opinion, having regard to the decision of the Judges in the case of a lady on December 2, 1903, that women are not now eligible by law to be members of an Inn of Court or to be called to the Bar; they are further of opinion that, in view of the possibility of legislation being passed making women so eligible, the Inns of Court should consider in common how best the change should be carried into effect, having regard to the ancient discipline and customs of the Inns of Court and their control over all students and barristers; and that it is desirable that a special joint committee be appointed by the four Courts for this purpose. I entirely concur that, things having got to this point, it is most desirable that the Bill should pass into law during the present session. I apprehend that it may not be long before the Inns of Court, if they agree, may be able to be of assistance and so far from hindering would facilitate the passage of the Bill.

I do not know whether I shall be successful, but the only object I had in speaking to-night was to appeal to my noble and learned friend Lord Buckmaster to leave perhaps rather a prolonged, certainly an unusual, time between the Second Reading and the Committee stage, so that the Inns should have an opportunity to make suggestions to some of us who represent them in this House as to any details that may be necessary for giving effect to the Bill in the best way, having regard to the interests and discipline of the Bar, including as it may a certain number of women. In that way the Bill may be sent to the House of Commons in a form in which it may not be likely to require further amendment. I am not in any way opposing the Bill or its Second Reading. But I make the appeal that a little time should be given so that details may be considered by the Inns who may very well be able to make useful suggestions as to amendment.


My Lords, in answer to my noble friend I would make it plain that the Government in no way bound themselves to adopt the precise form, and still less the precise language, of Lord Buckmaster's Bill; and before taking steps, if they are able to take steps, in the House of Commons it would certainly be their intention to consult the various Inns of Court.


My Lords, I did not come down to the House with any intention of taking part in this debate. In fact, I did not know that this Bill was among the Orders of the Day. I rise in consequence of an observation that was made by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack. He referred to the speech that I made when the Bill with regard to solicitors was before the House, and he spoke as if I had rested my opposition to it solely on the ground that the war was then pending. My objection to that measure was based on other and more general ground as well as on that of the pendency of the war to which it was vary probable I referred though I have no recollection that it formed the main subject of my argument. The argument now put forward in support of the measure is that it will only lead to a very few women—one or two, I think, it was said—coming to the Bar and a few becoming solicitors. That may be so but I think if that be the fact it goes a very long way to show that the Common Law of England was not so absurd after all, and that it may in course of time be recognised that the Common Law was in conformity with the facts of the case. I do not rise to make a speech. I do not rise to move the rejection of the measure. But I think it only right, after what the Lord Chancellor has said, to correct the misapprehension under which I believe he was with regard to my attitude in the previous occasion.

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