13 April 2016

A first for women: Lady Dorrian appointed Lord Justice Clerk

Today, it has been announced that Leeona Dorrian has been appointed to the position of Lord Justice Clerk, Scotland's second most senior judge. Congratulations are to be extended to Lady Dorrian. But this is also a quietly historic occasion: Lady Dorrian is the first woman in Scottish legal history to hold this post.

At this stage, crustier lawyers amongst you may begin to shift uncomfortably, rhubarbing about individual merit, changed days, and so on. And fair enough, as far as it goes. But we do ourselves no favours if we forget our history, and Lady Dorrian's appointment is historic.

For the overwhelming majority of Scotland's history as a distinctive legal jurisdiction, women have been subject to the law, but haven't been permitted to shape it, whether in parliament, or on the bench. The progress of women's rights in the democratic domain at the beginning of the twentieth century is a weel-kent story. The 1918 Representation of the People Act conceded the principle of women's suffrage. This principle became more universal thereafter. Less well known, however, is the history of women's exclusion from the legal field. 

Until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, women were not permitted to become solicitors or advocates in Scottish courts. This was just one of a range of disqualifications which prevented women from fully participating in civic and political life. In the 1880s, the legality of these bans were challenged by women's rights activists in courts north and south of the border.  In Nairn v Scottish Ministers, for example, a group of women challenged the failure of the ancient universities to issue them with ballot papers. These women were graduates. They held degrees. The legislation which creates these university constituencies referred only to "persons" who were entitled to vote in their elections. Aren't women "persons"? 

Remarkably, the highest court in the land held that they were not. Rejecting the women's case, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Loreburn, upheld Edinburgh University’s refusal to issue its women graduates with ballot papers, saying: “this disability of women has been taken for granted", concluding "it is incomprehensible to me that anyone acquainted with our laws or the methods by which they are ascertained can think, if indeed, anyone does think, there is room for argument on such a point." So it was official: legally, women weren't "persons". But dissatisfaction drove reform. The 1919 Act allowed women to become officers of the court, if they met the requisite standards of qualification and training. It turned out women were "persons" after all.

The first woman was called to the Scottish Bar in July 1923 -- Margaret Kidd KC. Kidd was a fairly quiet, very conservative trailblazer. She was subsequently appointed sheriff and sheriff principal, but she remained a lonely representative of womankind in the corridors of Scottish lawyering for a remarkable period of time. The second female advocate – Isabel Sinclair – was not admitted to the Faculty until 1949, some twenty-six years later.  It took until 1981 for the Faculty roll to boast more than 10 female advocates. It is unsurprising, as a result, that the experience of pioneer women in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was not always positive. One Scotsman article recounted this example from the life of the new Justice Clerk:

Isabel Sinclair QC “was rebuked by Lord Cameron for wearing red lipstick in court. As recently as a decade ago Leeona Dorrian QC was ticked off for wearing a red ribbon around her neck after the judge told her she was “improperly dressed.’”

The first woman was not appointed to the Court of Session bench until 1996, when Hazel Aronson - Lady Cosgrove - was appointed. That's in my lifetime - only twenty years ago. Recent Law Society of Scotland data shows the history of male dominance in Scots law is being - slowly - challenged. Currently, there are over 11,000 solicitor enrolled with the Law Society, with a roughly 50/50 breakdown. But a look at the longer-term figures show that the feminising of the Scottish legal profession remains a modern, fairly recent phenomenon. Just consider the statistics from the turn of the millennium onwards.

So bravo, Lady Dorrian. I'm sure the appointment reflects considerations of personal merit above all. But let's not overlook the understated symbolism of her appointment too. Although the law has hardly been an early adopter, Lady Dorrian's appointment shows that even the Scottish legal establishment cannot evade the gender revolution forever.


  1. My beautiful, intelligent and talented grand-daughter is going up to University next session, to study Law.

    I told her she was choosing a hard career path to follow, but,until I read this, I had not realised just how hard it has been for women to practice Law.

    Be warned stuffy male legal reactionaries - this wee Madam will really shake you up.

    1. The best of good luck go with her. Where is she bound? I must say -- the early 2000s, women have predominated in the study of law at universities. This is echoed in the traineeship statistics, for example, which show a striking majority, being taken up by female candidates. Changed days.

    2. She has unconditional acceptances at three universities, and a conditional for Glasgow, which is her first choice.

      She is hoping to get good enough results in her Sixth Year Studies exams to clinch the place at Glasgow. I have every confidence in her getting these.