How did women lawyer rights develop in South Africa?
Women were first afforded to be admitted as attorneys and advocates in South Africa after promulgation of The Woman Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923. The first white woman was admitted as an attorney in 1923, while the first coloured woman was admitted as an advocate in 1962. The first black woman attorney was admitted in 1967.
The Attorneys Act of 53 of 1979 repealed the Woman Legal Practitioners Act as a whole. The Admission of Advocates Act 74 of 1964 followed in 1966. These Acts were gender-neutral, but the culture, political atmosphere, attitudes of society and the traditions of the legal profession continued to favour male legal practitioners for many years.
Women’s rights were further statutory limited by the Marriage Act of 1961, but improved with the adoption of the Matrimonial Property of 1984. The Recognition of Customary Marriages of 1998 further assisted with statutory legal protection for woman in customary African and polygamist marriages, which previously could afford husbands and fathers to have legal and social control over women.
It was not until the adoption of the Constitution of South Africa’s Bill of Rights in 1994 that all woman in South Africa received statutory recognition and protection as equal citizens of South Africa. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programs were further implemented from 2003 and promoted inter alia the employment of black woman in all sectors, including in the few big law firms of South Africa.
The Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 fully came into force at the end of 2018 (after several amendments) and repealed The Attorneys Act and the Admission of Advocates Act.
The first South African National Legal Practice Council, elected in 2019, which governs all legal practitioners in South Africa, currently includes 10 woman legal practitioners out of 22 Council members, including women as the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson.
Overall, it is further estimated that at least 40% of practising legal practitioners in South Africa today are women, of all races, and of which many own and operate their own legal practices as attorneys or advocates.
We are very proud of the progress South African lawyers have made regarding women representation in the legal profession over the last few decades. It continues to remain up to the conscience and conduct of the leaders in the legal profession, voluntarily lawyer associations, and law firm owners to commit to protection of equal rights and improvements relating to diversity in our profession based on gender.
We also appreciate that woman lawyers today are standing on the shoulders of giants and we thank brave senior women lawyers who helped paved the way for women lawyers thriving today.
We hope reflecting back on our legal profession’s history and progress continue to bring us all closer together and take us forward.