How women finally got the right to jury service

by Dr K Crosby

8 Feb 2018

The Representation of the People Act 1918 famously ended the ban on women voting in general elections. But behind the headline ‘women got the vote’, there was a more complex reality. Some women had already been voting in – and been elected into office in – various local franchises for half a century. And even when some women secured the parliamentary vote in February 1918, all women in their twenties were still excluded. Moreover, all women were still prohibited from taking part in public life by joining the professions, or by serving as jurors.

The Bill to abolish legal rules keeping women out of the professions

The year after some women secured the parliamentary vote, the Labour opposition introduced into Parliament the Women’s Emancipation Bill, which would have abolished legal rules keeping women out of the professions, allowed women to sit in the House of Lords, and given women an identical parliamentary franchise to that enjoyed by men. When the Labour Bill passed through the Commons, the coalition government faced the embarrassing prospect of the official opposition managing to pass its own measures into law. In order to avoid this possibility, the government threw its weight behind its own alternative measure: the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill.

A more modest approach

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was much more modest than the Labour measure, doing no more than abolishing the ban on women professionals and women jurors. And clearly even this reform could only be the start of a process of broadening the membership of the professions and of juries. As the Viscountess Rhonda once put it, the problem was to find a way to ensure that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act could ‘get outside its brackets’. This is a story which is currently being told in the specific context of the legal profession by the First 100 Years project.

First mixed jury

Lady jurors at the first "mixed" jury at the Bath Quarter Sessions featured in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 16th October 1920

But while there were newly enfranchised people who were very keen to join the professions, jury service has not in practice always been regarded as such an attractive part of citizenship. In 1913, for example, Gwyneth Bebb and three others had unsuccessfully taken the Law Society to court over their refusal to allow women to qualify as solicitors; while after 1919 various newspapers were keen to emphasise how keen some women were to avoid jury service. There were probably always more people – men and women – seeking to avoid jury service than there were people trying to serve on a jury.

Qualifications to be a juror

Things get even trickier once we consider the rules about how a person qualified to be a juror. First, they had to own land of a certain value. The Representation of the People Act 1918 required women to occupy property worth at least five pounds per annum before they could vote in parliamentary elections, and under rules established in 1825 jurors had to own at least twice as much. This meant in Bristol in 1925, for example, that 6,758 men and only 1,503 women were qualified as jurors, meaning that a representative Bristolian jury would feature fewer than three women.

Even if a person was qualified, they would still need to be summoned by local officials, and then selected for a particular case. The lawyers in serious criminal trials could remove several prospective jurors without giving reasons. The trial judge, meanwhile, could simply order an all-male jury. Finally, judges often invited women to excuse themselves from particularly ‘shocking’ trials. Before long, local court officials started to complain that there was no point even summoning representative jury panels, as so few women ever actually served. This is likely to have limited even further the number of women available for each trial.

What kinds of trials did women serve on?

By exploring records of serious criminal trials in the first decade after 1919, it is possible to see how the kinds of trials that women served on was affected by the attitudes of lawyers and court officials, including variable local attitudes. In sexual offence trials without a female victim, for example, women almost never served. Conversely, all-male juries were less common for property offences such as theft. Women jurors were also more likely in the southeast of England in homicide trials, in trials for non-fatal assaults in south Wales, and in trials for sexual offences against women in southwest England.

A loophole exploited

Given that jury service was considered an important part of active citizenship, it is unsurprising that the bar on women jurors was lifted soon after 1918. But we have already seen that local attitudes could determine whether women were actually able to enjoy this part of their newfound citizenship. In fact, ten towns enjoyed a loophole which meant they could select their jurors however they liked. In Leicester, Lincoln and Nottingham, all juries trying serious criminal offences in autumn 1920 had exactly six men and six women; while in Norwich, Bristol and Exeter such juries featured no women at all.

The first time men and women served on the jury at the Leicester assizes

The first time men and women served on the jury at the Leicester assizes, 26 October 1920. The court official recorded the names of the six men and six women in two separate columns. 

Soon after 1919, efforts were made to tighten up these rules, ensuring jurors were summoned according to nationally consistent rules. In December 1920, the Lord Chancellor pushed through legislation abolishing the ten towns’ discretion to ignore the property qualifications, despite objections from the Home Office that this would disqualify many women. Two years later, a new requirement was added to the juror qualification rules: that a juror also had to be appear on the electoral register. This prevented women serving as jurors where they owned property but lived elsewhere with male relatives, and it also excluded foreigners and conscientious objectors.

Universal right to serve as a juror

Jury service was widely considered a part of the citizenship which was secured by some women through the Representation of the People Act 1918, and so it is unsurprising that reforms were quickly passed extending the jury franchise to some women. By exploring in detail the records both of serious criminal cases and of debates within central and local government immediately after 1919, we can see just how incomplete this extension of citizenship really was. As with the right to vote in parliamentary elections, it would be some time before the right to serve as a juror was truly universal.

Dr K Crosby is a Lecturer in Law at Newcastle University. They have completed an archival project exploring regional variations in the use of female jurors in the assize courts of 1920s England and Wales, funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant.

This blog post is part of our Vote 100 series. Read our other posts marking 100 years since Parliament passed the law allowing the first women to vote.

Image credits:
Female jurors at the first "mixed" jury at the Bath Quarter Sessions featured in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 16 October 1920 via the British Newspaper Archive

'The first time men and women served on the jury at the Leicester assizes, 26 October 1920' via National Archives: ASSI 11/42

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