Monday, 23 December 2013

A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom. It became law when it received Royal Assent on 23 December 1919.

The basic purpose of the Act was, as stated in its long title, "... to amend the Law with respect to disqualification on account of sex", which it achieved in four short sections and one schedule. Its broad aim was achieved by section 1, which stated that:
A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise), [and a person shall not be exempted by sex or marriage from the liability to serve as a juror] …

Women had previously been given a (limited) right to vote by the Representation of the People Act 1918, and had been able to stand for Parliament, but most of the less high-profile restrictions on women participating in civil life remained. In effect, this Act lifted most of the existing common-law restrictions on women; they were now able, for example to serve as magistrates or jurors, or enter the professions. Marriage was no longer legally considered a bar to a woman's ability to work.

The Act came into force on the day it became law, 23 December 1919; the first female Justice of the Peace - Ada Summers, ex officio a Justice by virtue of being the Mayor of Stalybridge - was sworn in a week later, on 31 December. However, it took until December 1922 for a female solicitor to be appointed.

The Act was, by the standards of its time, astonishingly broad. It only addressed three areas specifically - the Civil Service, the courts, and the Universities - leaving all other areas to the sweeping alterations made by section 1. Francis Bennion later described it as "splendidly general", arguing that it went "further in emancipating women than [did] the Sex Discrimination Act 1975".

However, the Act was rarely invoked by the courts—the first court case to rule based on it was Nagle v. Fielden in 1966. The one significant ruling as to the extent of the Act was not in a court of law, but rather in the House of Lords, where the Committee for Privileges was asked by Margaret Mackworth, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda to rule if the Act's provisions for exercising "any public function" extended to permitting a woman to sit in the House as a peeress in her own right. After some debate, it was held 22-4 that it did not. Women would not be permitted to sit in the Lords until 1958, when appointed female life peers were expressly permitted by the Life Peerages Act 1958, whilst hereditary peeresses gained the right to take their seats after the passage of the Peerage Act 1963.

Much of the Act has been repealed, although the first part of section 1 remains in force (outside Scotland, where it was repealed by the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975), as well as the whole of section 3,


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