ALTHOUGH THE Victorian Government claims that female barristers are winning a proportionately higher amount of its legal work, the Victorian Bar Association expressed reservations about the devil in the detail.
Figures released in the Victorian Department of Justice’s government barristers briefing report for the 2005—06 financial year were praised by Attorney-General Robert Hulls, who cited an increased involvement of female barristers in government work through the panel system.
Yet according to Alexandra Richards QC, chairwoman of the equal opportunity committee of the Victorian Bar Council, the reality is not as rosy.
“Three years ago women barristers briefed under the panel arrangements received only 21 per cent of fees paid,” Hulls said. “This figure has now increased to 32 per cent, which equates to a 52 per cent increase in the proportion of fees invoiced to women since 2003—04.”
However, as is openly noted in the report, these figures do not include the significant work done by barristers for statutory authorities — such as the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) and the Victorian WorkCover Authority — which are not required to submit data.
According to Richards, although the report demonstrates “a marked improvement in the briefing practices of women” by 8 government departments, 19 panel firms and the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office (VSGO) that is “to be commended”, it doesn’t tell the full story.
The statistics that Hulls said are “an excellent result and a big step in the right direction” — being a 52 per cent briefing of female barristers and 32 per cent of fees invoiced by women — are calculated from a total of 3,565 briefs and $9.86 million in fees under the panel system.
But the voluntary figures released by WorkCover show that from a larger total of 3,910 briefs, only 9 per cent went to women, corresponding to 5 per cent of fees. Absent from the report is any mention of the total dollar value of those fees.
Hulls acknowledged that “the pressure to positively allocate more work to women will have to continue for some years more, despite women having already surpassed their representation at the bar”.
“We still need a critical mass of women at senior levels in the profession, which also needs to embrace structural changes that will allow women to have families and return to the profession,” he said.
Yet Hulls went on to say that “the Children’s Court accounted for the highest number of junior briefs to women, providing a good grounding in gaining skills during the early years at the bar”.
Richards, however, did not agree.
“The particular statement about providing a ‘good grounding in gaining skills during the early years at the bar’ before proceeding to others areas belies the professional area stereotype trap,” she said.
“In the main, there will be no progression to other areas and the skills obtained are not conducive to commercial, ‘business’ areas.”
Richards said her view is supported by the fact that the “training ground for male barristers is generally considered to be civil and criminal matters in the Magistrates’ Court, where few young women barristers regularly ‘train’”.
It is also the case that “the women briefed by the [Department of Human Services] in these matters are not confined to ‘young’ female barristers [as the report and Hulls] claim, but rather range across all levels of seniority of women at the bar”.
Female barristers make up approximately 20 per cent of members of the Victorian Bar, which the report said offers a benchmark that participants in the panel system should be mindful of when selecting representation.
The report also said that female barristers gained the most panel work in the areas of administrative law and government, litigation and employment, where the percentage of total briefs they received exceeded their representation at the bar.
In administrative law and government, female barristers received 117 from 305 briefs, or 38 per cent, along with $837,145 in fees or 44 per cent.
Briefs for women working in employment law totalled 36 out of 105, or 34 per cent, which equated with 33 per cent of fees, or $465,613; whereas in litigation there were 144 briefs of 425, or 34 per cent, netting $423,188 in fees or 30 per cent.