New Zealand Law Society Standards Committee finds no offence with the term “Feme Sole” – “woman without a husband”
New Zealand Women 2016 still dealing with oppressive, premodern “coverture”
Vestiges of the pre-modern and oppressive Doctrine of Coverture regarding the legal status of women in 2016 continue to haunt the New Zealand Law Society. In a recent complaint to the New Zealand Law Society Standards Committee, a professional but divorced woman raised her concern that a professional but divorced male Barrister had referred to her in official court documents as a “Feme Sole” – a woman without a husband. The term “Feme Sole” originates from the 1870s and relates to a woman who has never been married, or whose subordination to her husband has been invalidated through a judicial decision [divorce]. As the term “Fem Sole” originates from a time when a woman’s marital status determined her legal status, one would have expected, in 2016, that the New Zealand Law Society, Standards Committee would have pounced on such a discriminatory and sexist description of a professional woman solely on the basis of her marital status.
The New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008
Chapter 12 of the New Zealand Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008 (“the Rules”) provide that:
A lawyer must, when acting in a professional capacity, conduct dealings with others, including self- represented persons, with integrity, respect and courtesy
One would think and hope that referring to a professional woman in 2016 using only her status as married/unmarried would be an affront to the Standards Committee in terms of its role in promoting gender equality, sexism and rights of women within the law. Even more so, given there is no male equivalent to the term “Feme Sole”. The Standards Committee of the New Zealand Law Society decided however, that in 2016, the use of the term “Feme Sole” in relation to a professional woman does not does not breach the duty of the male, divorced, Barrister to conduct himself with integrity, respect and courtesy. The justification for the decision by the Standards Committee was the previous widespread use of the term. The Standards Committee seems to have ignored the previous widespread use of the term was during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Coverture may have almost faded but remnants of this pre-modern device of women’s oppression clearly remain intact within the New Zealand Law Society and the Standards Committee. Professional women in New Zealand beware: descriptions of your professional status in 2016 may just depend on whether or not you are married.
By Dr Lisa Shamseldin PhD Law