Female barristers had only six per cent of speaking roles in Civil Appeal hearings in the Court of Appeal in 2016/17, according to statistics released by the Victorian Supreme Court. Of barristers who appeared in hearings as juniors during this period less than 15 per cent were women. This is far below the proportion of women at the bar which is presently 29 per cent.
During the period 161 cases were initiated in the Court of Appeal Civil Division and 177 were finalised.
By comparison, in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division the percentage of female barristers who had speaking roles was just under 22 per cent (21.75) and the percentage of women who appeared was just under 23 per cent (22.75). In 2016/17 285 criminal cases were initiated and 251 were finalised.
“Some excellent equitable briefing initiatives have been developed in recent years and encouraging progress has been made, but these figures are very disappointing and there is clearly a long way to go before briefing is equitable in respect of gender, particularly in the civil jurisdiction,” said Victorian Bar President Jennifer Batrouney QC.
The Victorian Bar has a number of programs which aim to increase the representation of women barristers, including being a signatory to the Law Council’s Equitable Briefing Policy.
In 2015, the Victorian Bar’s Commercial Bar Association developed and implemented an Equitable Briefing Initiative focused specifically on improving briefing practices in commercial matters. The first reporting from the law firms, corporations and government body participants in that program contains promising results for junior women barristers - with the gap closing in respect of the proportion and value of the work briefed by the participants. The report indicates however that there is more work to be done in improving equitable briefing practices at the senior level. The Court of Appeal statistics confirm this.
“These founding and current participants in the Commercial Bar Association Equitable Briefing Initiative have demonstrated a commitment to change and have driven that change home. We need to build on that success by encouraging more law firms, corporate and government organisations to take on the responsibility to effect change. I hope to be able to replicate this program in other practice areas at the Bar. Barristers and barristers’ clerks are part of the solution in ensuring they recommend women as well as male barristers when approached for referrals. However, the power of government briefing agencies, firms and in-house counsel in this equation cannot be underestimated. It is critical.” Ms Batrouney QC said.
In 2016, a survey of reported State Revenue Office cases in the Supreme Court of Victoria and the Court of Appeal from 2012 – 2015 indicated that men were briefed in 93 per cent of matters before those courts. Of the 17 barristers briefed in 31 cases over three years only two were women, one junior and one senior counsel.
“Government is in a powerful position to influence the briefing of women barristers and in most cases provides robust leadership. The Victorian Government Solicitors Office (VGSO) is one of the participants in the Commercial Bar Equitable Briefing Initiative and is setting a positive example in this respect. We would like to see all government bodies and authorities follow the leadership of the VGSO and their private counterparts.
“The early results of the Equitable Briefing Initiative show that with committed strong leadership positive change can be effected,” said Ms Batrouney QC.