Ladies in law | Daily News

Ladies in law

The societies that sprang along the river valleys of the East and those of the Mediterranean considered women weaker than men. The women of the low orders laboured hard while the upper orders enjoyed less manual work but they were under the subjugation of men. All women were considered inferior to men both in physical and moral strength. The man took upper-hand in all kinds of work and women were under full and complete control and influence of men.

Aristotle thought that women were weaker and impulsive than men. Plato had a better reflection of women’s abilities. He thought women could equal men as philosophers and admitted them in his Academy.

The argument was advanced that books destroy women’s brain. However, in support of women, Juan Luis Vives wrote The Instruction of a Christian Woman and Sir Thomas Elyot wrote The Defence of Good Women. St. Jerome advocated restricted education to women and nunneries were opened for women. However the upper-class women enjoyed these facilities and the lower-class women continued to suffer under men’s subjugation.

modern freedom for women

First female Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake

Entrance to law and medicine was more difficult. The Church and the public were hostile to women practising these professions. Law offered many difficulties. Training was in private offices and the societies did not encourage it at all and they were not allowed to practise the profession. After a strenuous fight, Myra Bradwell was able to practise in 1872 when Illinois brought legislation to remove sex disqualification. Though Bella Lockwood admitted to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia (1873) she was denied the right to practise in the Supreme Court of United States till legislation was passed in 1879.

Great progress has been made in the year 1951 when fifty countries had equal numbers of girls and boys in the primary schools and 43 countries had secondary schools. In 47 countries higher education for girls ranged from 1% to 4%.

The modern freedom for women in Great Britain commenced with the introduction of the Legislation of Married Women Property Act, 1882, the Representation of the People Act 1918 by which they were allowed to vote. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened them to many professions hitherto before closed to them.

In Sri Lanka, it was so unfortunate that prior to the introduction of the Sex Disqualification Removal (Legal Profession) Ordinance No. 25 of 1933, the fair sex was not permitted to be admitted or enrolled as an Advocate or as a Proctor or as a Notary or as a Commissioner for Oaths.

However, the Ordinance No.25 of 1933 gave the license to the women to become and to practise as Advocates, Proctors and Notaries and to become Commissioners for Oaths. Section 2 of this Ordinance states:

More women as Attorneys-at-law

A woman shall not be disqualified by reason only of her sex –

from being admitted and enrolled, or from practising, as an Advocate or as a Proctor; or from being authorised to practise as a Notary by a warrant issued under the provisions of the Notaries Ordinance, or from practising or functioning as a Notary under the provisions of that Ordinance or of any other written law; or from being appointed, or from functioning, or as a Commissioner for Oaths under the provisions of the Oaths Ordinance.

Now, we are witnessing that the Sri Lanka Law College produces more women than men as Attorneys-at-law.

The first female to become a member of the legal profession (Proctor) was Sir Lalita Rajapakse’s sister-in-law, Ruby Devanayagam. The first female adorned with silk was Maureen Seneviratne (Advocate). Mallika Prematilake was the first female lecturer at Sri Lanka Law College. She was the first female Magistrate (1979) and District Judge (1985).

Shanthi Eva Wanasundare PC was the first female Senior State Counsel in the Attorney General’s Department, first female Deputy Solicitor General (1998) and the first female Additional Solicitor General (2005). She is the first female officer of the Attorney General’s Depart to be conferred silk (2007). She became the first female to be appointed as Acting Attorney General in December 2008 and in March 2009. Later became the first female Attorney General.

Dr. Shirani A Bandaranayake was the first female to be appointed as Supreme Court Judge on October 30, 1996, and the first lady to be appointed Acting Chief Justice. Later, she became the first female Chief Justice of Sri Lanka.

Lady Chief Justice

However, unfair impeachment of the Lady Chief Justice was brought up and a Panel of Inquiry of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) hurriedly concluded within six hours of sittings, examining and recording of the evidence of most of the sixteen witnesses and marking of more than 1000 pages of documents, despite the Supreme Court request to restrain the PSC from proceeding with the Inquiry but the Panel went on disregarding the SC request and found the Chief Justice ‘guilty’ and she was removed. She was reinstated after Maithripala Sirisena became President and Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister. She was the first female Chief Justice to be removed and reinstated.

Chandra Ekanayake was the first female to become the Judge of the Court of Appeal (2003) and President of the Court of Appeal in 2008. The first female Vice-Chancellor of the University of Colombo (Law Faculty) was Prof Savitri Goonesekera. There are many ‘female’ roses who rose first in their respective fields of the legal profession, yet to be traced and identified.

Married Women’s Property Ordinance was enacted in 1924. It gave them the freedom to hold immovable properties in their own names and to enter into the contract as feme-soles. The said Act did not in certain matters apply to Kandyans, Muslims or Tamils governed by the law of Thesawalamai.

It is good to see that women in the 21st century are marching with men hand in hand and on equal terms. 

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