The Persons Case and the living tree theory of constitutional interpretation.

Author:Sharpe, Robert J.

On 18 October 1929, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled that women were legally eligible for appointment to the Senate of Canada. (1) The judgment was written by Lord Sankey, the reform-minded Lord Chancellor appointed by Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Lord Sankey departed from a long line of cases and proclaimed an organic and progressive theory of constitutional interpretation. The British North America Act, 1867 (2) had, according to Lord Sankey, planted in Canada "a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits." (3) This allowed him to rule that "the exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours." (4)

The Privy Council's decision, popularly known in Canada as the "Person's Case", was a bold legal step that reverberates to this day as a proclamation of equality and universal personhood, and as a guiding principle of constitutional interpretation.

My lecture, drawn from a book I co-authored, (5) is a case study based upon archival other contemporary sources that attempts to put the Persons Case in its historical context. Who were the people behind the case? What were the legal, social and political forces that produced this remarkable decision? I hope that the story I am about to tell you will provide some insight into the human and contextual factors that shape and influence the legal and interpretive process.


Let me start by explaining the precise legal issue put to the Privy Council in the Persons Case. The British North America Act, 1867, a statute enacted by the Westminster Parliament that served as Canada's Constitution until 1982, provides for an appointed upper house, the Senate. The Act states that on the advice of the Canadian government, the Governor-General of Canada, as the Queen's representative, can summon "qualified Persons to the Senate," and that "every Person so summoned shall become and be a Member of the Senate and a Senator." (6) Do the words "qualified persons" include women? Today the answer is obviously "yes" but it was not so straightforward in 1929. There is no doubt that when the British North America Act was written in 1867, the drafters did not imagine women being considered "qualified Persons" capable of being appointed to the Senate. By 1929, Canadian women had entered the work force. They could vote and sit in the House of Commons but eligibility for the Senate remained cast in the language of 1867. The English courts had consistently interpreted similar statutory qualifications for public office as excluding women. (7) The conventional legal thinking of the day was that the words of the constitution had to bear the same meaning in 1929 as they had borne in 1867, and that it would take a constitutional amendment to make possible a female Senator.


The Privy Council's decision in the Persons Case was the result of the untiring efforts of Emily Murphy, a well-published author and social crusader, (8) and the first woman to be appointed as a magistrate in the British Empire when she was named to the newly created Women's Court in Edmonton Alberta in 1916. (9) Murphy was not legally trained and she did not conduct herself either in or out of court as a traditional judge. She saw her role as being that of a social worker and she never surrendered her mantle as a social reformer. Courts, she proclaimed, should be "casualty clearing stations where 'magistrate-physicians' carefully diagnosed the offenders' problems and applied the proper remedy." (10) Despite her judicial office, Murphy continued to speak out on social issues affecting women and children and she continued to advocate legal reforms. She attracted national attention with her tirade against the evil of drugs in a book entitled The Black Candle, arguing that illicit drug use posed a dire threat to the moral health of the nation. (11) Clearly, Murphy's ambitions could not be satisfied by the lowly position of a Police Magistrate and, very shortly after she was appointed to the bench, she set about to get herself appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Murphy's campaign was widely supported by women's groups and petitions from around the country flowed to the Prime Minister's office. Her friends found it difficult to understand why she was so determined to gain admission to a body frequently ridiculed, as one newspaper put it, as a "superfluous fossil institution," (12) but they supported her out of feminist solidarity.


Murphy quickly found that her quest for a Senate appointment faced a formidable hurdle. In response to her lobbying efforts, the Canadian Department of Justice developed a detailed legal opinion to the effect that women were not qualified persons for appointment to the Senate. (13) According to the government's law officers, nothing short of a constitutional amendment was needed if Murphy was to fulfill her Senate dream.

That opinion was well supported by authority. In a series of decisions knows as "the Persons cases," the English courts had steadfastly denied that a woman could vote, hold public office, or gain admission to the universities or the professions. The leading decision, Chorlton v Lings, (14) decided in 1868 dealt with the Representation of the People Act, 1867, which was debated and enacted the same year as the BNA Act. This legislation extended the vote to "every man" of full age who was a householder and not "subject to any legal incapacity." (15) Relying on the Interpretation Act, 1850 that provided that "words importing the Masculine Gender shall be taken to include Females ... unless the contrary ... is expressly provided," (16) 5000 female voters from Manchester insisted that they were entitled to vote. Their case was argued by John Duke Coleridge, QC, an eminent barrister and prominent Liberal member of the House of Commons, later Chief Justice, and Richard Pankhurst, a radical lawyer, who later married Emmeline Goulden, the leading figure in the suffrage movement. Coleridge and Pankhurst contended that the law extending the vote to "every man" had to be read in light of the Interpretation Act stipulation that masculine words presumptively included females and that women were every bit as entitled as men to vote. The argument was summarily rejected. Chief Justice Bovill conceded that the word "men" ordinarily included women by virtue of the Interpretation Act but that the provision did not apply where the result was "ridiculous." (17) So far as the Chief Justice was concerned, enfranchising women clearly fell into the category of ridiculous.

There were many other "Persons cases" that followed the same line of reasoning. A 1908 decision of the House of Lords held that a statute that gave a vote to "all persons" who had graduated from certain universities did not give the vote to female graduates. (18) The tone of Lord Chancellor Loreburn's judgment is revealing:

It is incomprehensible to me that any one acquainted with our laws or the methods by which they are ascertained can think, if any one does think, that there is room for argument on such a point. (19) Parliament appeared to resolve the matter by enacting the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919 providing that "[a] person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function." (20) But when Margaret Haig Thomas inherited her father's peerage and sought admission to the House of Lords as Viscountess Rhonnda, the door was slammed by Lord Birkenhead's ruling. The words used by Parliament, he stated, were so "vague and general" that "when dealing with a constitutional question of the utmost gravity" they could not be interpreted as "affecting a revolutionary change in the privileges of this House," and that Parliament "cannot be taken to have employed such loose and ambiguous words to carry out so momentous a revolution in the constitution of this House." (21)

Against this tide of authority stood one bold decision from Alberta that had rejected a challenge to the appointment of women as magistrates. (22) As Murphy later recorded: "[O]n my initial appearance as a Police Magistrate ... my jurisdiction was sharply challenged by counsel for the defence ... It was then argued in almost every case upon which I sat that women were eligible to hold office." (23)

In a ruling that foreshadowed the Persons Case, a strong and independent-minded Alberta Judge, Charles Allan Stuart, affirmed the legality of appointing female magistrates. Stuart proclaimed, "the Courts of this province are not in every case to be held strictly bound by the decisions of the English courts" and insisted that he was "at liberty to take cognizance of the different conditions ... and the general attitude of the community" (24) to hold women eligible for public office.

Murphy regarded the challenge to her right to sit on the bench as an affront to her personal dignity. It was an insult that reverberated in her mind for years to come and, combined with Justice Stuart's progressive decision, fuelled her determination to fight the Persons case to the end.


To meet the road block created by the Department of Justice opinion, Murphy sought opinions of her own. First, she prevailed upon her brother William Ferguson, an Ontario Judge who could not give her a formal opinion but who obliged under the guise of a "dear sister" letter clearly intended for wider circulation. (25) To bolster brother William's encouraging advice, Murphy retained a distinguished Quebec lawyer, Eugene Lafleur, who frequently argued constitutional cases for the federal government. Lafleur was known to be sympathetic to women's causes but he disappointed Murphy. He wrote that while the word "persons" was gender neutral and certainly could include women, the problem was the attitude of the judges. He advised that the Alberta judgment affirming Murphy's...

To continue reading