AN AGGRESSIVE, macho culture at the Bar is putting potential female barristers off from becoming appellate advocates, according to High Court Justice Michael Kirby.
In a speech to lawyers in London last week, Justice Kirby said there was a prevailing culture of masculinity at the Bar in which barristers also had difficulty balancing their work with family responsibilities.
These elements combined to produce a sometimes aggressively male environment in which it is not entirely surprising to find a lack of women, according to Kirby, “It need not be so,” he said. “Some take the view that it is only a matter of time before women, who have only recently begun entering the profession in numbers equivalent to men, rise through the ranks by virtue of merit. But how much time is required?” he asked.
Women now account for over half of the graduating law students in many Australian law schools, Justice Kirby said. As well, the majority of legal practitioners being admitted in New South Wales in the past few years have been women.
But it is 68 years since the first female appeared in a case before the High Court of Australia. Despite the passage of so many years, however, Justice Kirby said many are still talking about the need for women to just wait patiently for equal opportunity at the Bar.
He used his experience in the High Court as an example, explaining that in the 10 years that he has been there, comparatively few female advocates have had “speaking parts”.
“The numbers appear, if anything, to be declining. Statistics compiled by the Registry of the High Court of Australia reveal that in 2004 a total of 161 counsel appeared before the Court in appeal hearings. Of these, seven were women. This number increases somewhat in relation to special leave applications, where 51 of the 634 counsel appearing before the Court were female. In 2004, therefore, fewer than seven per cent of the advocates appearing before the Court, in appeals, summonses or special leave applications, were women,” he said.
Justice Kirby said there was no single, easy solution that will ensure equal opportunities for women as advocates. “Women are not just men who wear skirts. Women bring a different perspective to the practice and content of the law. Inevitably it is reflective of their different life experiences.
“Given the importance of our legal systems to the development of a fair and just society, it is critical that the best and the brightest are encouraged to take up the profession of law.”
By Craig Donaldson