When is a Person Not a Person?

Mill's_logic_1867Prior to 1929 women were not eligible to sit in the House of Lords, to be elected to County Councils, to be judges or jurors or to work as solicitors. As Evershed MR said in one case, De Souza v Cobden: “women are not in general deemed capable of exercising public functions”. Even the passage of an Act of 1850, which deemed that legislation referring to a man was to include a woman unless the contrary was expressly provided, did not prevent a court in Chorlton v Ling from deciding that an Act giving the right to vote to “every man” excluded women. The issue surfaced this century in the Privy Council case of Edwards v Canada [1930] AC 124. Under the British North America Act of 1867 only qualified “persons” were eligible to stand for senate. In 1928 the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that Emily Murphy, an early advocate of women’s rights, and three other women were not “persons” for the purpose of the Act, and so could not stand for parliament. They appealed to the Privy Council, which for the first time decided that the word “person” was ambiguous and could include both sexes. As Lord Sankey put it “and to those who ask why the word should include females, the obvious answer is why it should not?”. The women won their appeal – they were now, legally, “persons” – one small step in legal reasoning but a big step for womankind…


Michael Ford QC is a barrister specialising in labour law, discrimination law and human rights. He recently did a biology degree to prove anyone can do science!

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