Category: 1950-1999

Islam v Secretary of State for the Home Department, R v Immigration Appeal Tribunal and Another, ex parte Shah (Conjoined Appeals) [1999]

Islam v Secretary of State for the Home Department, R v Immigration Appeal Tribunal and Another, ex parte Shah (Conjoined Appeals) [1999]

Women represent half of the world’s 19.6 million refugees. Women and children are often part of large-scale movements of people who flee persecution and human rights abuses, poverty and lack of economic opportunities as well as escaping conflicts and devastation in their home countries.

Colour photo of tour of refugee camp in Jordan with the UN Secretary General
Jordan – UN Secretary-General meets with Syrian Refugee Women and Girls by UN Women [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (]
The joined appeals by Shah and Islam concerned two women from Pakistan who were subjected to serious physical abuse by their husbands and were forced to leave their homes. They applied for asylum in the UK, claiming that they feared if returned to Pakistan they would be subjected to domestic violence from which there was no state protection, as well as severe sanctions arising from false allegations of adultery made against them. The House of Lords decision is of major significance, as it is the first time the highest court in the UK recognised gender as a protected characteristic and women as a particular social group within the meaning of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The full version of this landmark is written Nora Honkala.


Learn More

Asylum Aid: Protection from Persecution, ‘The Women’s Project’

Refugee Council, ‘Refugee Council Briefing: The Experiences of Refugee Women in the UK’

UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, ‘Figures at a Glance’

UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, ‘The 1951 Refugee Convention’ 

St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1999]

St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1999]

The legacy of St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S is the clear statement that a pregnant woman is not be treated as incapable of making a decision simply because she chooses something that many would judge to be misguided, or even immoral. It insists that we are vigilant in ensuring that women are not silenced or side-lined within their own experiences of pregnancy and childbirth.

Annapurna Waughray, Kay Lalor and Anne Morris

Colour photo of a newborn baby in hospital yawningAlthough the case of St George’s Health Care NHS Trust v S reiterates general principles of patient autonomy and self-determination, it is of special significance for women because of its unequivocal affirmation that a competent pregnant woman can refuse medical treatment even if that refusal may result in harm to her or the foetus. It also establishes that mental health legislation cannot be used to prevent a competent pregnant woman from exercising this right.

The full version of this landmark is written by Annapurna Waughray, Kay Lalor and Anne Morris.


Learn More

The Independent, ‘Law Report: 12 May 1998; Pregnant Woman was Entitled to Refuse Caesarian’

Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1995

Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1995

Black and white scan of information on the divorce referendum
Grounds for divorce information on divorce referendum creator and copyright belongs to the Houses of the Oireachtas [CC 4.0 International License (] disclaimer by the Houses of the Oireachtas applied
The Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1995 removed the ban on divorce from the Irish Constitution. It was the second attempt at removing the ban; the first in 1986, ended with a substantive victory for the no-divorce campaigners.

By the 1980s, most other Western countries had not only introduced divorce, but had altered divorce laws to include no-fault based divorce and provided for equality in the distribution of property following divorce. Ireland therefore stood apart. When the first referendum to remove the ban was proposed, it followed many years of vigorous campaigning on women’s rights in other Western countries and in Ireland, various women’s organisations had been established including the Council for the Status of Women (an umbrella organisation for women’s groups. Now called the National Women’s Council of Ireland). One would imagine therefore that women would have argued forcefully in favour of divorce in Ireland. However, this was not the case. In fact, the majority of women voted against removing the ban in 1986.

The successful divorce referendum is often pointed to as one of the major turning points in modern Irish society. Around this time, Ireland began to shed many of its traditional, conservative societal notions. Attitudes towards women were also slowly changing… The divorce campaign was one part of this change and it followed earlier turning points such as the election of Mary Robinson as President and the Supreme Court decision in ‘the X case’, which allowed a 14 year old rape victim to travel abroad for an abortion.

Laura Cahillane

By the time of the second proposal in 1995, societal attitudes towards women were changing and while the proposal passed only by the narrowest of margins in the end, the victory demonstrates, in a microcosmic sense, that the position and status of women in modern Ireland had changed forever.

The full version of this landmark is written by Laura Cahillane.


Learn More

A.J. Christopher, ‘This Changing World: The Irish Divorce Referndum of 1995’ (1997) 82 Geographical Association

The Irish Times, ‘ ‘Hello Divorce, Goodbye Daddy’: 20 Years After the Irish said Yes’

Mairead Enright, ‘On This Day: First for Irish Divorce’ (Human Rights in Ireland, 17 January 2010)

The New York Times, ‘Irish Vote to End the Divorce Ban By a Tiny Margin’

RTÉ Archives, ‘No Recognition for Overseas Divorce in Ireland 1985’

RTÉ Archives, ‘Hello Divorce, Goodbye De Valera 1995’

Webb v EMO Air Cargo (UK) Ltd (No 2) [1995]

Webb v EMO Air Cargo (UK) Ltd (No 2) [1995]

Webb is a landmark decision because it emphasises the reality that employers must accept – pregnancy is a normal part of the lives of many working women

Debra Morris

Black and white photo of a pregnant womanIn Webb v EMO Air Cargo (UK) Ltd the House of Lords held that dismissal on grounds of pregnancy was contrary to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, even though a man in similar circumstances (i.e. unable to work for a time) would also have been dismissed. Significantly, it was finally recognised that no comparison (e.g. to a sick man) was necessary to establish discrimination against a pregnant woman.

Looking back, we can appreciate how the English courts made heavy weather of this issue. It took the dedicated Ms Webb eight years, and a trip to Luxembourg (the location of the Court of Justice of the European Union) to win her case. Her tenacity is to be admired, especially upon learning that she was only a teenager when she was told that she would be sacked for being pregnant.

As Anne Morris commented at the time: “Nowhere was the reluctance to promote equality of opportunity for pregnant workers more apparent than in the long, tortuous saga of Mrs Webb”.

The full version of this landmark is written by Debra Morris.

Learn More

Clare McGlynn, ‘Pregnancy Dismissals and the Webb Litigation’ (1996) 4 Feminist Legal Studies

The Independent, ‘Law Report: Pregnancy Dismissal Amounted to Sex Discrimination’

Lesley MacDonagh

Lesley MacDonagh

Colour photo of Lesley MacDonagh
Lesley MacDonagh

In a sector known for its macho, long-hours culture, the appointment of a woman as managing partner of a top 10 law firm in 1995 was striking. The successes of Lovells during MacDonagh’s time as managing partner are proof (if such proof was ever needed) that a woman can lead an elite law firm. And lead it well. MacDonagh’s life away from the office evidence that it is also possible (as a woman) to combine a family with elite law firm management (such a combination seeming to be a given for men in law firms).

Steven Vaughan

In 1995, Lesley MacDonagh (1952- ) was appointed as the managing partner of Lovell White Durrant (now Hogan Lovells), the first time that a woman had been chosen to lead a top 10 law firm in England & Wales. At the time of her appointment, the firm comprised 1400 partners and associate lawyers spread across nine offices in Europe and Asia. By the time Ms MacDonagh stepped down as managing partner, 11 years later, Lovells had doubled in size, due mostly to its merger with German firm Boesebeck Droste that MacDonagh led at the beginning of the millennium. She was voted ‘Legal Business Managing Partner of the Year’ for the year 2000.

The full version of this landmark is written by Steven Vaughan.

Learn More

eFinancialCareers Ltd., ‘Day in the Life: Lesley MacDonagh, Managing Partner, International Law Firm’ (22 April 2002)

The Independent, ‘First Woman Among Equals’

The Law Society Gazette, ‘Glass Ceiling Shattered— Lesley MacDonagh the First Woman to Become Managing Partner of a Top Ten City Firm’ (8 February 1995)

R v Ahluwalia [1993]

R v Ahluwalia [1993]

Ahluwalia was an overwhelmingly positive legal landmark for women. However, the gendered nature of the justice system remains. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the dilution of the sexual infidelity exclusion [in R v Clinton], as well as in interpretations of the requirement to focus on the circumstances of the defendant’s loss of control. It is clear that despite progress made, the pervasiveness of gendered stereotyping around (battered) women remains.

Siobhan Weare

The landmark case of Ahluwalia liberalised the defence of provocation for women who kill their abusive partners, and acknowledged Battered Woman Syndrome (BWS) could be a relevant characteristic of the defendant’s for the purposes of the defence. The case began a process of law reform, culminating in the abolition of provocation and its replacement with a new partial defence to murder; loss of control, found in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.


The full version of this landmark is written by Siobhan Weare.


Learn More

The Guardian News and Media Ltd., ‘I Wanted Him to Stop Hurting Me’

The Independent, ‘Law Report: Battered Woman Syndrome Relevant to Defence’

Justice for Women

Law Commission, Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide (Law Com No 304, 2006) (EasyRead version)

Southall Black Sisters,

Southall Black Sisters, ‘Kiranjit Ahluwalia’

Southall Black Sisters, ‘Provoked: The Story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia’

Foundation of the Association of Women Barristers (1991)

Foundation of the Association of Women Barristers (1991)

Over the years, the Association of Women Barristers has been involved in every major consultation and advance in equality and diversity which has benefited not only women barristers but also men at the Bar.

Frances Burton


Colour photo of the Royal Courts of Justice
The Royal Courts of Justice by Ronnie MacDonald [CC BY 2.0(]

Unlike the Association of Women Solicitors, with its origins in the period immediately before and after the 1919 Act, the foundation of the Association of Women Barristers in 1991 came about as the result of an initiative of a group of Common Law and Chancery women barristers. They called a meeting to discuss the concept of an association which would provide mutual support to women in all sectors of the Bar, and to lobby for some of the equality and diversity measures that were significantly lacking in the profession generally. The Association’s first Chairwoman was Jennifer Horne-Roberts. Over the years, the Association has been involved in every major consultation and advance in equality and diversity which has benefited not only women barristers but also men at the Bar.

The full version of this landmark is written by Frances Burton.


Learn More

Fiona Jackson, ‘Association of Women Barristers’ (Counsel

Hilary Heilbron, ‘Women at the Bar: An Historical Perspective’ (Counsel

Jennifer Jones, ‘Mentoring Minutes for Inspiring Women’ (Counsel

Sarah Mercer, ‘Snapshot: Women at the Bar’ (Counsel, October 2015)

Patricia Scotland

Patricia Scotland

In June 2007, Patricia Scotland (1955- ) became the first woman – and to date only woman – to take up the position of Attorney General for England, Wales and Northern Ireland since its foundation in 1315. She was also the first black woman, and indeed the first black person – and only black person – to be elevated to the post. She was in office from June 2007 until May 2010 when the Labour party lost the general election, after which she became the shadow Attorney General until 2011. On her appointment, members of the press described her as the most prominent black woman in government and as a leading voice on racial, feminist and equality issues.

However, this was not her only ‘first’.

Colour photo of Patricia Scotland sitting on a couch
Patricia Scotland, from Commonwealth Secretariat [CC BY-NC 2.0(]
In 1991, she became the youngest and first black woman to ever become Queen’s Counsel. She was also the first black woman to be appointed Deputy High Court Judge, Recorder and Master of Middle Temple. In 2001, she became the first black woman ever to be appointed as a minister in a UK government when she was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for the Lord Chancellor’s Department.

The full version of this landmark is written by Linda Mulcahy.


Learn More

Chuka Umunna, ‘The Duty to Inspire’ (New Statesman Media, 30 August 2007)

Dan Newling, ‘The Future QC Born Into A Family of 14’ (17 September 2009)

Patricia Scotland QC, ‘Who I Am’

Patricia Scotland QC, ‘News’

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

Colour photo of Mary Robinson standing in front of flags shaking hands at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation in 2017
Mary Robinson at the OECD from OECD 2017 [CC BY-NC 2.0 (]

It has been almost 27 years since Ireland elected its first woman President, yet it is clear that the legacy of this landmark endures as Irish women continue to claim their rightful place in public office and continue to demand more for themselves, persisting in the quest for further reproductive rights. As Mary Robinson said, ‘Feel empowered. And if you start to do it, if you start to feel your voice heard, you will never go back

Leah Treanor


Black and white photo of Mary Robinson as President of Ireland in 1990
Mary Robinson as President of Ireland in 1990, from the Irish Labour Party [CC BY-ND 2.0(]
In 1990, Mary Robinson (1944- ) became the first woman President of Ireland, making Ireland the first EU country to elect a woman as Head of State. Her political career had begun 20 years earlier when she was elected to Seanad Éireann, the Upper House of the Oireachtas. A constitutional lawyer, Mary Robinson championed human rights and gender equality both in her work as a lawyer and as a Senator. Despite the limited constitutional remit of the Irish President, Mary Robinson’s Presidency was an active and meaningful one. Indeed, many would say that Robinson redefined the office of President itself.

The full version of this landmark is written by Leah Treanor.


Learn More

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Mary Robinson: President of Ireland’

The Mary Robinson Centre, ‘Mary Robinson— Global World Leader’

President of Ireland, ‘Mary Robinson’

President of Ireland, ‘Office of the President of Ireland— A Timeline’

RTÉ Archives, ‘President Mary Robinson: From Rocking the Cradle to Rocking the System 1990’

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Project leaders, Rosemary Auchmuty and Erika Rackley, talk to Elizabeth Woodcraft about the aims, methodology and ambitions for the Project for PodAcademy

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The landmarks that appear on this website were chosen by participants in the Women’s Legal Landmarks Project.

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