Perveen Mistry, in The Mistress of Bhatia House by Sujata Massey, must deal with the issue of being recognized by the Court to speak for a client. It is 1922 and she is the first woman practising law in Bombay.
A servant, Sunanda, from another household has been charged with taking an “oral abortifacient” to cause her to abort. She has been arrested and is brought before the Honorable James Peale O’Brien, Magistrate of the Bombay Police Bail Court.
As inevitable, there are numerous accused being brought to the Court to determine whether they will be released or held in jail pending trial. It is little different today, even in Provincial Court in a community of Melfort’s size. The judge must make decisions quickly to get through the docket. Whether in Melfort or another court point there will be just as many matters to be addressed the next day.
Within the Bombay courtroom are numerous solicitors appearing to advocate for release of their clients.
There are lots of family and friends present to provide support by providing references for the accused, being ready to provide a home if the accused is released and occasionally putting up money for bail.
The proceedings can be chaotic, especially with self-represented accused unfamiliar with court processes. It can be overwhelming for someone such as Sunanda who has never been a court.
To be able to speak for someone in English based court systems you must normally be a lawyer admitted to the bar. In Canada all lawyers are solicitors and barristers. In England there has been a distinction in which solicitors focus on preparing cases and have limited rights of advocacy. Barristers present cases in court.
In the Bombay Bail Court of 1922 a solicitor can speak for an accused but must be recognized as a lawyer.
Perveen has “completed the bachelor of civil law education at Oxford University” and “clerked at Freshfields” but does not have a law degree as female “students were not permitted to sit the examinations”. She is neither a member of the London Bar nor the Bombay Bar for she “cannot apply because both bar associations deny membership to female lawyers”.
Judge O’Brien officiously rules that Perveen “may serve clients as a solicitor but she has no authority to be an advocate.” He banishes her from the courtroom.
Instead of the dramatic words of banishment some judges might have used a phrase that is equally colourful. The judge might have said I cannot see you to Perveen. He would not see her because she is not an admitted solicitor. The phrase is rarely used today. In my 48 years of legal practice I have never seen someone not seen by a judge.
While lawyers understand what is meant by “I cannot see you” it is confusing for non-lawyers as they see the person standing before the bench.
Perveen is justly upset over the discrimination against women being admitted to the bar. In real life, Mithan Tata Lam was the first woman admitted to the Bombay bar in 1923. Mithan, like Perveen, was a Parsi who obtained her legal education in England. In Massey’s next book we shall see whether Perveen gains admission to the bar.
It takes a woman of great determination to keep challenging the establishment. Perveen will not turn away. She will continue to push her way to full recognition as a lawyer.