10:54, November 23 234 0 theguardian.com

2019-11-23 10:54:04
Lady Hale predicts gender parity in judiciary by 2033

Gender equality in the number of judges in England and Wales should be achieved by 2033 at the current rates of progress, according to Lady Hale, the president of the supreme court.

Addressing the Bar Council’s annual conference in central London, the UK’s most senior judge predicted that previous estimates by male counterparts would soon be proved wrong.

Hale, 74, who steps down from her post in January, has been a pioneer of, and enthusiastic advocate for, greater diversity on the bench.

The rate of improvement towards gender parity within the judiciary has been a point of fierce contention. Hale said that in the 1980s, a senior judge calculated it would take 200 years before there were as many female as male judges.

Lord Sumption, who recently retired from the supreme court, notoriously stated in 2012 he believed it would be 50 years more before parity was achieved.

But in her speech on Saturday, Hale said she and colleagues had recently “done the sums” and found that over the past seven years the annual rate of increase had been 1.34%. That means, she explained, that it will only be “14 years to get to parity”.

In the higher courts, she acknowledged, the proportion of women was lower. “It’s obvious that we still have a long way to go with women in the law both in the profession and the judiciary.”

There has also been slower progress in women being promoted to become Queen’s Counsel or QCs. At present, only 16.6% of QCs are women.

Hale said: “The reason women are not taking silk [becoming a QC] is that they are not applying. They are reluctant – or a more worrying reason is that they are not getting the kind of work that will qualify them to apply.”

Looking at the number of women who appear before the supreme court in recent years, she said, showed that most high-level, legal representation was still the preserve of experienced male barristers. In 2009, only 21% of those appearing at the court were were women; by last year, that proportion had only edged up very slightly to 23%.

“Increasingly it’s motherhood rather than gender [discrimination] which holds women back,” Hale observed. “They should not be forced out by the long hours culture of the profession or the flexible court hours [pilots being introduced by the Ministry of Justice which require very early morning starts or evening hearings].”

There is a “noticeable falling out of talent” from the profession after women had worked for 15 or 20 years, she warned.

This year marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which allowed women to become solicitors, barristers, magistrates and jurors for the first time. The legislation also enabled women to enter other professions, such as accountancy and the higher ranks of the civil service.

Hale said the values of justice, fairness and equality should be “embedded in our laws” and that should be in relation to “men and women, black and white, gay and straight, the poor and rich”. Everyone, she added, “should feel confident that the law is there for them if they need it”.

Women lawyers, she said, “can think of loads of things that men once thought were ‘common sense’ but on closer inspection turned out not to be”. One infamous Scottish judgment in 1900 has ruled that “women were not persons in the eyes of the law”, she recalled.

The pace of change towards greater diversity within the legal profession had been very slow in the first half century after 1919, Hale said in her speech which was entitled: “Here’s to the Second Century of Women.”

She declared: “The momentum is with us; the force is with us. … People are now recognising equality issues that were not recognised before.”