Female trial lawyers in London score a victory - small but symbolic

Southwark Crown Court, one of the most famous courthouses in London now has a unisex area, notably the men’s locker room. The change came about after female barristers complained about not being able to join in conversations with male peers. Although the change may seem a small one, it happens at a time when the UK has just appointed a female Supreme Court president. This is a ‘first’ in the field which up till now has been dominated by men.

Gender balance in the legal sector has been a long struggle. While in 2016 the number of women who became trial attorneys was slightly higher than men, only 14% reached the best-paid tier, known as Queen’s Council. These figures are taken from a report from the UK Bars Standards Board.

Judge Deborah Taylor, who was responsible for the change in the men’s room policy, said that there was no reason why gender should play a part in the role or status of any barrister. When questioned, some women went so far as to say that agreements had been reached before they were consulted. The rooms are used for barristers to don their black gowns over clothes, and to put on their white wigs. This practise is a requirement in most courts, and dates back to medieval times.

Deeper problem

While this may be a victory, it does bring to light the deeper problem of gender discrimination. It is very rare that a female barrister takes the lead job for a client in business-crime cases. Likewise, when clients select a barrister to run their case, there may often be no women competing for the job.

Gideon Cammerman QC, who specializes in fraud cases, says that it is rare to find a woman competing for the job. He has hardly ever seen more than one woman at these selections.

There is a knock-on effect from the shortage of female barristers on the judiciary. Most of the judges have come up from the ranks of trial attorneys. As of April 2017, less than one third of the judges in Britain were women. This comes from data published by the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary.

The announcement that Judge Brenda Hale is to become Supreme Court President in October is significant. Ms Hale is well-known for her outspoken views on the need for diversity. Hale said in 2015 that the Supreme Court should ‘be ashamed of itself’, if it did not fill posts with women.

The need for better representation

Ms Hale went on to say that it is important for the British judiciary to attract and promote women. It must be a priority to achieve better representation on the bench. Judging, said Hale, needed to be informed equally by the experience of leading a woman’s life, as it is by the experience of leading a man’s life.

One of the key issues in the shortage is that most barristers are self-employed, so taking time off to have children is a difficult decision. This will often put women several years behind their male peers in seniority.

A further issue is that many judges are concerned with the plan to extend court hours. This will put pressure on many child-care arrangements. Six courts will try the new hours for a period of six months. Only after the pilot programme, will any changes be made.

The pilot programme is designed to modernise courts, and make the hours more flexible, particularly for women with families to care for.

Kerim Fuad, the QC who is responsible for the representation in southeast UK says that it is a great concern because many women may leave the sector, even with the pilot programme in place, because they are unable to juggle work and home.

Fuad says that the government seems to be are pro diversity, although the pilot programme indicates the opposite. It is very frustrating taking two steps forward and then one back.


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