Speech by Mrs Justice Carr DBE: Women in Commercial Law

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History of women in law

In 1888, Eliza Orme became the first woman to earn a law degree in England, at University College London. However, although she “devilled” for a number of (male) conveyancing counsel, she was unable to be called to the bar or join the Law Society.

In 1903, Bertha Cave applied to be admitted as a student to Gray’s Inn to be called to the Bar. Although the initial response to her application was positive, some urged caution due to the “legal implications” of admitting the first woman to an Inn of Court. A special committee set up for the purpose decided on 24 April 1903 that, regardless of whether the Benchers wished to admit a woman as a student, it was not in the power of a single Inn of Court to do so. They looked to Dugdale’s Origines Juridiciales (a work on the origins of the Inns of Court) and concluded that, according to Dugdale “males and males alone” were admissible students. Bertha Cave appealed the decision in the House of Lords, asking that they change the law to allow women to enter the legal profession. The judges would not make a precedent to allow women to enter the legal profession or make the Inns of Court alter their centuries-old practice. Lord Halsbury concluded that “that is quite enough to justify the Inn in the course they have pursued and we do not think it necessary to give any other reasons than that there is no precedent for such a proceeding”.

In 1911, Gwyneth Bebb completed her studies at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, with a first-class mark. However, she was not awarded a degree. Women at Oxford at the time could not be. Nevertheless, she applied to the Law Society to take the solicitors’ examination and was refused on the ground she was a woman. Undeterred, she brought an action against the Law Society for a declaration that she was a “person” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843 and for an injunction requiring the Law Society to admit her to the examination or restraining it from refusing to admit her.