25th January 2014

Nowadays firms of solicitors in England and Wales are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Just now the SRA is carrying out an equality and diversity exercise. All law firms have to provide information about the make up of their staff dealing with things like gender race and sexual orientation.

This has led in some quarters of the legal profession to complaints about bureaucracy and form filling.

But perhaps we should remember why such initiatives as this are taken not only by professional regulators in the legal sector but also in other lines of work.

On that point the court case of Bebb versus the Law Society is worth a look.

Miss Gwyneth Marjorie Bebb wanted to be a solicitor. No problem there you might think (so long as she could pass the exams). Unfortunately for her though the year was 1914 and the Law Society – which at that time regulated solicitors – said she couldn't sit the exams.

Why? Perhaps she had a criminal record? Or was in some other way unfit to do the job of a lawyer?

No not at all. Her problem was: she was a woman and in 1914 the Law Society didn't let women sit the preliminary exams she needed to sit to start off on the road to qualifying as a solicitor.

As well as being regulated by the Law Society lawyers in those days had to follow rules laid down in the Solicitors Act of 1843. This provided for a “person&rdqo; to be able to qualify as a solicitor.

Miss Bebb went to court to try to force the Law Society to let her do the exams. Mr Justice Joyce heard her case and said no. He said that because of their sex alone women could not be solicitors.

So she appealed to the Court of Appeal – the second highest court in the land.

She asked the Court of Appeal to say she was a “person” and to order the Law Society to let her do the exams.

The judges in the Court of Appeal heard her case and said no as well. They dismissed her appeal.

The first women solicitors in England – 4 of them – were in fact admitted to the profession at the end of 1922. Sadly Miss Bebb wasn't one of them nor did she live to see it happen as she died in 1921.

Perhaps sometimes we forget how far we have come and why a bit of form filling in the name of fairness might not be as bad as all that.