Ladies of the jury: the long fight for equality on juries

Ladies of the jury: the long fight for equality on juries

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In my post on the inspiration for The Suffragette’s Daughter, I mentioned that despite the Representation of the People Act of 1918, a significant milestone in the suffrage movement, a third of the adult female population in Britain still didn’t have the right to vote.

The fight for equal representation was far from over, and this was certainly true when it came to women serving as jurors. The repercussions of this inequality are highlighted in The Suffragette’s Daughter.

Although women had played a role on juries since the thirteenth century, it was in a specific capacity; in this century, ‘matrons’ were first recorded. Matrons formed a special class of jury with the task of ascertaining whether a woman found guilty of a capital crime was pregnant. If a woman was pregnant, her execution was delayed.

After the Representation of the People Act 1918, women could sit as jurors. But in the same way a property requirement restricted the number of women eligible to vote, it also restricted who could sit as a juror. Under the act, women had to occupy property worth at least five pounds per annum to qualify for a vote in parliamentary elections. However, under rules dating back to 1825, you had to own at least twice as much to qualify as a juror. 

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 removed the bar on women serving as lawyers, judges or magistrates. The act helped to open up the civil service to women, who could sit on grand and trial juries for the first time.

However, even though women qualified, it didn’t mean they’d be summoned by local officials or selected for a case. In serious criminal trials, lawyers could remove several prospective jurors without giving a reason. And the trial judge had the authority to order an all-male jury. Some judges would even invite women to excuse themselves if they deemed the trial might prove too shocking for them.

As a result, it was a long time before any women served as jurors despite changes in the law.

In April 1920, several women were summoned to the Colchester Quarter Sessions. But it wasn’t until 29 July 1920 that women finally took their place in the jury box at the Bristol Quarter Sessions for the first criminal trials ever to be heard by a mixed jury in Britain.

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Interestingly, ten towns in the UK were able to take advantage of a law that enabled them to select jurors how they liked. As a consequence, in the autumn of 1920, Leicester, Lincoln and Nottingham had exactly six men and six women serving on juries trying serious criminal offences. But in the towns of Exeter and Norwich, no women served as jurors.

In December 1920, a law was passed to abolish the ten towns discretion to ignore the property qualifications. This was despite objections from the Home Office that this would disqualify many women.

Two years after this, a new requirement was added to juror qualification rules that meant a juror had to appear on the electoral register. This legislation prevented women serving as jurors if they owned property but lived elsewhere with male relatives.

The inclusion of women on juries was a lengthy battle, and while the reform acts of 1918 and 1919 opened some doors, it would still be many decades before there was equal representation of the sexes on juries.

The 1920s was a time of contrasts and change. A dangerous combination. The Suffragette’s Daughter introduces a new sleuth for a new era.

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