GOOD VIBRATIONS emanating from last week’s record equalling promotion of six female barristers to Senior Counsel in Victoria were dampened by industry whisperings, which hinted that women appointees lacked the experience of their male counterparts.
One of the sextet and convenor of Victorian Women Barristers, Fiona McLeod, hit back at destabilising rumblings that claimed the majority of 12 female SCs appointed over the past two years had been at the bar for less time than males promoted during the same period.
“Assuming that is correct, one needs to look beyond years at the bar and concentrate on what happened before they became a barrister,” she said. “It may be that the Chief Justice is looking beyond the narrow career path and into other valuable life experiences.”
McLeod agreed that experience was a factor warranting consideration, but added that it should not be the overriding concern.
“The capacity for leadership, the ability to handle difficult cases and one’s standing in the profession are other considerations,” she said.
On a brighter note, McLeod described news that six of the 21 silks appointed in 2003 were female as “wonderful”. With women making up only 18 per cent of Victoria’s bar, McLeod was particularly impressed the new batch comfortably exceeded that proportion by harbouring a female quotient of 29 per cent.
Following last week’s announcement, made by Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls, 19 female silks now practise in Victoria — up almost 50 per cent on 2002’s figure.
“It’s a significant increase and it indicates to junior women lawyers that it’s possible to achieve the senior most position in the law,” she said. “For sometime there’s been an assumption that aggression is what is needed to win a case. Now things like a meticulous preparation, and courtroom presence are being recognised. I think that’s a recognition of qualities that aren’t necessarily confined to one gender.”
During the announcement, Hulls also revealed the Government had decided to withdraw itself from the appointment-making process, effective next year.
“Practically speaking, the Attorney-General is only passing on SC recommendations of the Chief Justice to the Governor,” he said. “With that in mind, plus the necessity to ensure that there are no perceptions that SC appointments are dictated by the Government of the day, I believe it’s appropriate that the Attorney-General bow out of the process altogether.”
McLean acknowledged Hulls’ strong commitment to achieving equality in the profession, but rejected suggestions female silk hopefuls would stand to lose from his departure from the decision making process.
She had “every confidence” that the Victorian Bar Council, which will take on added responsibility from 2004 onwards, would give women a fair shot.