Who was the first British woman solicitor?

CARRIE MORRISON 1888 – 1950

By the mid-sixteenth century two branches of the legal profession had evolved:

barristers,

and attorneys and solicitors.

Traditionally solicitors had dealt with landed estates and attorneys advised parties in lawsuits. Gradually, these two roles combined and the name ‘solicitors’ was adopted.

There were also many unscrupulous lawyers disgracing the profession known as ‘pettifoggers and vipers’. So, in 1823, several prominent solicitors called for the formation of a professional association to set standards and ensure good practice.

The Law Society was founded in 1825 with the appointment of a management committee. The Society acquired a royal charter in 1831 and its own new building in Chancery Lane, London in 1832. A revised Charter in 1845 confirmed the Society as an independent, private body looking after the business of the all-male profession.

In 1913 the Law Society refused to allow four women to sit the Law Society examinations.

The women took the case to the Court of Appeal. But in a famous case, Bebb v The Law Society, the Court of Appeal upheld the Law Society’s decision. The Judge, Mr Justice Joyce, ruled that women were not “persons” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843.

It was not until 1919, when the Sex Disqualification Act was passed, that women were allowed to practice law.

In 1922, the first women to pass the examination to become solicitors were Maud Crofts, Carrie Morrison, Mary Pickup and Mary Sykes.

The next step was to take articles with a solicitor for five years which could be expensive if a woman didn’t have a father or husband who was  a solicitor to help out.

Fortunately the five years was reduced to three years for all four women because of their first class honours degrees and Carrie received a further one year exemption because of her work in WW1 with the Ministry of Munitions, the British army and MI5. This allowed her to finish her articles with a firm of solicitors in The Strand, London before the other women and thus become the first British woman to become a practising solicitor.

The numbers of women solicitors rose very slowly and ten years later only about a further one hundred women had qualified.

Meanwhile, in 1929, Carrie Morrison was married to Ambrose Appelbe, also a solicitor, and for several years they represented in court many of the poor of London’s East End. Although themselves divorced in 1937, Carrie and Ambrose continued to work together and campaign for improvements in the divorce laws.

As the first practising solicitor Carrie was of interest to the press although the reporters tended to be more interested in her appearance than her legal expertise. In 1943 Carrie gained some notoriety when she represented the wife in the Blackwell v. Blackwell case. Mr Blackwell contested that when his wife shopped at the Co-op and was paid a dividend on the amount spent he was entitled to the dividend not her. The Court found in his favour and an MP told the press that a wife should spend all the housekeeping money on feeding her husband not saving some for herself.

Carrie was well regarded by the other women members of her chosen profession and when she died in 1950 they kept a minute’s silence in her memory.

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