Women in the legal profession: Lady Justice’s Quest for Equality

Bar & Bench June 15 2018

Vishavjeet Chaudhary

Law has historically been a male-dominated profession. Things are now better balanced than they once were, but the Judiciary and the Bar are still both heavily and disproportionately dominated by men. This position is analogous throughout the world.

Until recently, out of the current strength of 23 judges at the Supreme Court of India, there was only one lady justice. With the swearing in of Justice Indu Malhotra, the number has now gone up to two.  In the entire history of the Supreme Court (six decades and counting) we have only had seven female justices in all. The Indian Supreme Court saw its first female justice, Justice Fathima Beevi sworn in 1989.

The situation in the rest of the world is no better. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (formerly the House of Lords) has only had two female justices. Until as late as 2004, the UK Supreme Court, with all its history, had never seen a woman judge. Lady Brenda Hale was sworn in as the first woman Supreme Court Justice that year. Currently, out of a total of 12 justices, the United Kingdom Supreme Court has two women justices.

Literature has much to offer by way of an insight into the area of ‘women and the law.’ Shakespeare’s Portia was perhaps the first woman lawyer- albeit in fiction. Being one of the richest Shakespearean characters, she exhibits remarkable layers of irony and satire. At a time when women were neither allowed on stage nor in the courts, we have a woman (played by a man) playing a man! The result is one of the finest hours in the practice of law. Inequity is rescued by lady justice herself.

In practice, it was not until 1922 that the first woman to practice as a barrister was called to the Bar. Legal education, still, was a male dominated profession, often attracting gentleman, nobility and aristocracy.

The reasons (or perceived reasons) for this discrepancy are varied and obscure. Law certainly is an onerous profession, demanding, both physically and emotionally. Long, unpredictable working hours and challenging situations are the norm. Rather ironically, it has been described as a “a jealous mistress” and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors, but by lavish homage. This, some say, is the reason for law being a male dominated profession.

Stereotypical, hegemonic portrayals of women have always placed them as more ‘emotional’ beings.  For instance, Aristotle subscribes to this notion. We now of course know that these kinds of stereotypes are not based on any logical thinking or empirical research. We are further made to believe that there is no place for emotions in the law. Thus, again marginalizing women.

The situation today is better than it has ever been, yet the bar is a far cry from the equal society that we all have a duty to build. Despite some remarkable  efforts (for example some of the oldest courts in the country are now headed by female Chief Justices), junior judges, senior judiciary, junior bar, senior bar- all are deeply dominated by men. Justice is the cornerstone of any democracy and we, as citizens, have the sacrosanct job to ensure that the institutions of justice are well balanced and representative of the population. Competence, and competence alone should prevail.

Diversity benefits everyone – not just the marginalised. It ensures a balanced, well-informed choice and opinion. Diversity in the Judiciary also ensures that decisions taken are done so after due consideration of all possible points of view. It would be unfair to say that this is not happening in our courts now. Generally speaking, most of the courts’ decisions are well balanced and representative. Yet, true confidence in these institutions can only be instilled when we have rich life experiences and different points of view are expressed.

It is our duty as a society to make our institutions such. We need to unbridle the shackles that have been built around fables, stereotypes and myths. Lady Justice after all, needs the finest of minds, irrespective of gender.

The author is a Barrister-at-Law, currently working as an Assistant Professor & Assistant Director of the Centre for Penology, Criminal Justice and Police Studies at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

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