Female under-representation in higher courts won’t fix itself, study shows

by Sol Dolor05 Sep 2018

A study that found significant under-representation of female lawyers in the country’s highest courts also shows that solving the issue is not just as simple as waiting for progress to naturally take its course.

The study, Gender Ratio of Counsel Appearing in Higher Courts, was funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation and carried out by the New Zealand Bar Association (NZBA). It showed that female barristers or solicitors made up 27% of lead counsel appearances before the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court for the years 2012 to 2017. When Crown Law data is excluded, the figure dropped to 16%.

The findings stand in contrast to data showing roughly equal numbers of female and male lawyers practicing in the New Zealand. The results were worse than anticipated, said co-authors Jenny Cooper QC and Gretta Schumacher, who are members of the NZBA council.

Cooper said that waiting is not an option and it’s time for the profession to actively change the state of affairs.

“The most shocking aspect is the absence of any material improvement over the six years that the study covers,” Cooper said. “This demonstrates the fallacy of the argument that it is just a matter of time and gender inequality will take care of itself. Active measures are needed to overcome entrenched attitudes that deprive women of opportunities to prove themselves as advocates.”

Clive Elliott QC, NZBA president, said that the profession urgently needs to do more.

“While many of us may have thought there was a gender imbalance for higher court legal representation, this research definitely confirms it. There has been a focus on trying to address the issue through gender-equitable briefing, but clearly the legal profession needs to do more, and move more quickly in order to create fairness and opportunity for women barristers and solicitors,” he said.

The authors said that it is difficult not to see the imbalance as a major roadblock to the progression of women to leadership and success in the profession.

“If women are not able to obtain opportunities to speak, develop and grow in their advocacy, and to demonstrate their skills in the public setting of the courtroom, this will not change quickly,” they wrote.