Women in Law (part 1)

Mithan Lam (Tata), Autumn Leaves

One of my favorite chroniclers of the history of the legal profession in India is A. J. C. Mistry. Mistry was an unusual author of legal memoirs. He was not a lawyer or judge recounting favorite courtroom quips, but a “managing clerk” who ran the office at the law firm Wadia Ghandy and Co. in Bombay during the early 20th century. He was obsessed with detailed facts (dates, names, typewriter brands, etc.) and put them all together in three published memoirs–two of the firm and one of the Bombay High Court. I’ve written this short article about him, and my website is full of references from his memoirs (like this list of titles from the firm’s library). Today, I’m reproducing a particularly interesting passage that documents the history of some of the earliest female lawyers in India and the British Empire.

From Ardeshir Jamshedji Chanji Mistry, Forty Years Reminiscences of the High Court of Judicature at Bombay (Bombay: the author, 1925), 43-45:

99. Lady Barrister: In 1884, no one dreamt of seeing Lady Barristers in [the] Bombay High Court, but that has come to pass.

[p.44] During the period, female education has increased in India, side by side with that of the world. A Number of ladies hold the degrees of B.A., and M. A., of the Universities, and some of them have the honour of being Fellows of the University. Some of them took up law and passed their LL. B. They were, however, not allowed to practice until recently.

As one of the results of the War of 1914-1918 the Lady Sufferagists of England, inter alia, agitated for admittance to the Inns of Court. The first woman in England, to receive University Degree in Law, in 1913, fought the Law Society in the Courts for admittance to practise. Lord Roberts Cecil appeared for her but she failed. In 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) bill was passed by the Parliament and she was the first to apply for admittance to Lincoln Inn within 24 hours of the passing of the Act but unfortunately she died shortly.

Miss Olive Catherine [Clapham] was the first English Lady to pass the examination of Barrister in July 1921.

Miss Kyle the first Irish Lady Barrister (February 1922) received her first brief only a week after her admittance in Court. She wore the traditional wig and gown.

Miss Ivy Williams, daughter of a Solicitor, passed the examination of a Barrister and came first in 1922.

In passing I may state that four ladies passed the examination of a Solicitor in London for the first time in 1922.

In India Miss [Cornelia] Sorabji, a Parsee Christian passed her [B.C.L.] in 1893, but was not allowed to practise in Courts so she became a Legal Adviser to the Court of Wards Bengal. Subsequently in 1921 the Allahabad High Court gave her the Sanad of a ‘Vakeel’ and allowed her to practise as a Pleader.

Although the Allahabad High Court allowed Miss Cornelia, the Calcutta High Court refused Miss Razina Guba and the Patna High Court refused Miss Sudhangsro Bala Haszra in 1921.

The said Miss Cornelia Sorabji subsequently joined the Lincoln Inn and passed the examination of a Barrister in 1923.

Shrinati Begaum daughter of Mahidul Islam Jahaludin-el-Husain came first in LL.B., examination of Calcutta University.

The first Indian and the first Parsee Lady in the Bombay Presidency to pass the LL.B.. examination (in 1910) was Miss Bhicaiji Ardeshir Engineer, M.A., LL.B., M.B.E., J.P. She is now the Superintendent of the Seva Sadan establishment of Bombay.

The first Indian and Parsee Lady Barrister admitted as an Advocate of the High Court in India is Miss [Mithan Ardeshir] Bejonji Tata who was admitted by the Bombay High Court. She was admitted by the Chief Justice the Hon. Sir Norman C. Macleod and was sworn before the Hon. Mr. Justice Dinshaw F. Mulla on Friday 25th January 1924.

[p.45] The enactments in force in British India, the Letters Patent of High Courts, and rules made thereunder disqualified a woman from being admitted or enrolled as a legal practitioner, but such bar was removed, by the Legal Practitioner (Woman) Act 1923, Act 23 of 1923, which laid down that no woman shall by reason only of her sex be disqualified from being admitted or enrolled, as a Practitioner or from practising as such.

For more on Cornelia Sorabji and the history of the legal profession, have a look at the readings on my bibliography. Here is also the latest on the Cornelia Sorabji scholarship, created a few years ago to fund the studies of a female law student from India at Somerville College Oxford.

Stay tuned for part 2 next month, when I’ll share a list of memoirs and autobiographies by women in law in South Asia.