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When women and law collide

When women and law collide

Socio-legal academic Dr Patricia Easteal believes women face numerous hidden discriminations when they work in and interact with the law. She speaks to Angela Priestley Too often, according to…

Socio-legal academic Dr Patricia Easteal believes women face numerous hidden discriminations when they work in and interact with the law. She speaks to Angela Priestley

Too often, according to Patricia Easteal, legal academics, lawyers and policymakers get caught up in the black letter law without considering the law's connections between society and culture.

It's a problem that Easteal believes stands in the way of the law being considered within the broader context of diversity and, in particular, gender.

"I don't believe that you can look at the law without looking at the context," she explains. "But I'm afraid that a lot of people do that. They teach the black letter law without looking at the context which is why many biases remain invisible, both gender biases and other biases, because it's all looked at as one truth - instead of looking at the subtle nuances of the law."

Such a position has led the professor of law at the University of Canberra and 2009 ACT Australian of the Year to label herself a "socio-legal academic". It has also given her the background to uncover some of the hidden gender discriminations that exist in our system of justice - both for those who work within the justice system and those confronted by it.

With the help of more than 30 authors, Easteal explores such discriminations in her new book, Women and the Law in Australia.

Fundamentally, the book asks how gender biases and inequality - both visible and invisible - have found their way into the justice system via areas such as the administration of legislation, the Constitution, mediation, exercising judicial discretion and gathering evidence.

The book aims to recognise that the need to balance paid work alongside family commitments and the so-called "second shift" that women undertake to meet household duties is a major concern touching women in the judiciary, in private practice and in public law. Outside the legal industry, such concerns also touch women fronting up to the justice system by way of industrial disputes, family and criminal matters, employment and commercial law.

But rather than simply outline such discriminations, Easteal also seeks to provide a practical guide for lawyers, policymakers and others in administrating a new approach to the law that recognises the existence of such discriminations and seeks to deal with them accordingly.

"I see this book as really being a handbook, a resource guide for male and female lawyers and others," says Easteal. "I really believe it's the first of it's kind and that it can make a difference."

And to do so, Easteal has put together an impressive list of academics, lawyers and barristers to contribute including Fiona Mcleod and Leonie Kennedy who explore barriers facing women in private practice, Kathy Mack and Sharyn Roach Anleu who explore women in the judiciary, and Susan Priest and George Williams who discuss issues facing women in public law - particularly timely given Julia Gillard's appointment to Prime Minister last week.

The book will be launched in August at the Australian Women Lawyers national conference by the Governor-General Quentin Bryce AC (who also contributed the book's foreword).

Women and the Law in Australia is published by LexisNexis, also publisher of Lawyers Weekly. See this week's edition of Lawyers Weekly for more on women in public law.

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