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First UK woman barrister Helena Normanton KC commemorated

08 February 2019 - By Tracey Cormack

The Bar in Britain is about to get its first set of chambers named after a woman, Helena Normanton KC, the first woman to practise as a barrister in England. The 218 Strand Chambers, which a set of eight members launched at the start of 2018 in London, was due to rebrand as Normanton Chambers in February 2019.

Helena Normanton

Jonathan Dingle, the Joint Head of Chambers, says it’s a logical decision.

“From my perspective, Helena Normanton was an amazing person – her life is more than just the first to join an Inn or Middle Temple 100 years ago [this] year. The things she did, stood for and represented were visionary, brave, and far reaching.

“The friends who set up chambers with me last January were determined to make a difference to diversity, inclusion and reach at the Bar (as we already do worldwide with the Society of Mediators). We wanted to put equality at the heart of the agenda and saw that not only were women under-represented at the Bar, but no chambers had been named after the pantheon of inspiring women who had done so much over the last hundred years. Indeed, many seemed to look back to a certain category of corpulent corporates who were certainly heavyweights in the law, and often too in their dining chairs, but were hardly representative of society.

“Andi – my joint head and friend for 25 years – and I wanted a role model to embody the Chambers’ philosophy and some research, reading, and discussion with her biographer led to the obvious choice.”

Mr Dingle says at the formal launch “some inspiring contemporary women will speak and reflect – both on the last 100 years, and the next 10”.

Helena Normanton’s early years

Ms Normanton was born in London in 1882. Her father died when she was four. Her mother ran a small grocery shop and a boarding house. She was reportedly an excellent student and in 1896 won a scholarship to a science school. She left in July 1900 as a pupil teacher and helped run her mother’s boarding house. She later attended teacher training college and then lectured at universities.

She was interested in the position of women and was a speaker on feminist issues. She completed a history degree, and a diploma in French language, literature and history from Dijon University in France.

Equal opportunity for women

In 1914 Helena Normanton published a pamphlet entitled Sex Differentiation in Salary arguing for equal pay for equal work. She wrote a book Everyday Law for Women (1932) in which she said that she became interested in becoming a barrister at age 12. She applied unsuccessfully to be admitted to the Middle Temple (one of the four Inns of Court which have the exclusive right to call students to the Bar) in 1918 and then successfully in 1919 within days of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill (1919) being introduced.

This was the first piece of equal opportunities legislation to be entered into statute in the UK. The Act enabled women to join the professions and to sit in the House of Lords (although the House of Lords deleted the clause on allowing women to sit there, which was not overturned until 1958). However, ‘Proviso A’ of the Act enabled restrictions to be made on the admission of women to the civil service. Women were permitted to sit on juries, but ‘Proviso B’ permitted judges to have single sex juries on the basis of the nature of the evidence or issues. Women were essentially excluded from sexual assault and rape cases, which is surely where their point of view would have been most valuable. This continued until 1972.

Helena Normanton took and passed three compulsory parts of the bar examination simultaneously. She was called to the Bar on 17 November 1922, soon after Ivy Williams had become the first woman to do so. She would be the first woman in England to practise as Ms Williams instead taught law. However, Ms Normanton was not the first woman to practise in the UK as that honour went to Madge Easton Anderson in Glasgow in 1920 (after a successful appeal to the Court of Session).

She married Gavin Bowman Watson Clark in 1921 but they did not have children. She was the first married woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name (1924).

“Anne Boleyn did not change her name even though she married the King. He at least had the decency to leave her with her own name even though he took her head.” (Yorkshire Post, 26 March 1954, quoting Helena).

Firsts in court

Ms Normanton was the first female counsel in cases in the High Court of Justice (1922), the Old Bailey (1924) and the London sessions (1926) and the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client and to lead the prosecution in a murder trial (May 1948).

She was the first woman to conduct a case in the United States, appearing in the test case in which a married woman’s right to retain her maiden name was confirmed.

In 1949 she became the first female King’s Counsel (along with Rose Heilbron) in England and Wales.

She had to face challenges targeted at her by the legal profession. She was accused of advertising (which was forbidden) and her application to practise on the western circuit (the south and south-west of England) was rejected.

Because of these difficulties she tried to support other women pursuing a legal career, including mentoring female students. To supplement her relatively low law income, Helena let rooms in her house and charged fees for speaking engagements.

Feminism and divorce reform

Helena Normanton was a staunch advocate for women’s rights and in 1952 she drew up a memorandum of evidence as President of the Married Women’s Association for consideration by the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce (she later resigned and withdrew the memorandum and formed the Council of Married Women and submitted a revised memorandum to the Royal Commission).

She sought to expand the grounds on which a divorce petition could be made. She was not challenging marriage per se but trying to standardise ‘irregular’ partnerships. Her argument was that limited grounds to apply for and the costs of divorce meant that couples were forced to stay married and to form separate relationships to which illegitimate children were born.

“The gloves are off”

The following is an excerpt from an interview that was recorded in March 1918 in Ladies’ Pictorial. Interestingly some of the issues she has raised are still current 100 years later.

“The gloves are off now. I made my application to be admitted as a student of the Middle Temple in the most courteous and approved formal manner. I was rebuffed in the curtest fashion, with no reason given for the refusal. So now I shall frankly say what I think.

“What do I think? Well, in the first place, you have heard what I think of the institution of Benchers. But what goads me to fury is that by refusing to allow a woman to be called, the citizens’ right of representation in court by an advocate of their own choice is completely set aside. Look here, is it logical to admit women to the medical profession to enter into competition with men … while refusing admission to the sacrosanct legal circle to women?

“Do I think women lawyers are needed? Of course I do. What is more, I know they are. I’ve had hundreds of letters from women all over the country begging me to go on – they need not fear I shall faint by the way to the Middle Temple – as they would much prefer to have a woman advocate for the particular cases they wish to bring before the Court. Besides, I have already been promised by certain women’s societies that I shall be their legal adviser when I get through.

“I am perfectly certain, that it is high time that a women’s interests were in the hands of their own sex ... I believe the sex-exclusiveness of the legal profession is doomed. Women won’t stand it, and men, who’ve been learning a great deal lately about women’s capabilities, will not tolerate it either. Why, it is positively blocking genius. And we can’t afford to do that, seeing what has to be made up during the next generation. We shall want all the brains we can collect together. Apparently, it’s not among Benchers we shall find a surplus. For they do not seem to grasp the fact that the interests of the individual must henceforth give way to the higher good of the community, and there will now be six million women voters on the register. Do you think, do the Benchers think, that lawyers are going to be returned, by hundreds to Parliament, if women citizens are to be debarred from the possibility of participating in the administration of justice? Not a bit of it.”

During her lifetime she campaigned for women’s rights and women’s suffrage, paving the way for generations of women. Her niece Elsie Cannon wrote about how being made King’s Counsel came too late for Helena as she was in poor health and “too old to forge a career as a Silk”. In 1954 she had a coronary which led her to consider renewing her will, which centered on establishing a university in Sussex. Ms Normanton died on 14 October 1957 aged 74 in a Sydenham nursing home, and was buried at Ovingdean Churchyard, Brighton.

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Last updated on the 8th February 2019