The Court marks International Women’s Day by highlighting the important role of women in Victoria’s legal history and looking forward.

International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8 March every year.  It is an opportunity to commemorate women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements and highlight the need to continue accelerating gender equality.

Celebrating achievement

Victoria has a long tradition of female legal leaders. Flos Greig was the first women in Australia to enter a law faculty in 1897 and the first Australian woman admitted to the legal profession in 1905.  In 1923, Joan Rosanove became the first female barrister in Victoria and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1965 (having submitted applications from 1954). Her advocacy on behalf of women included work towards uniform divorce law in Australia and, as early as 1926, lobbying the Victorian Attorney-General for the appointment of female justices.

From the early 1990s, there was growing criticism in the community about the Court being entirely male. From 1992, successive Attoneys-General made concerted efforts to appoint women to the Court, however it wasn’t until March 1996 that Rosemary Balmford was appointed as the Court’s first female judge.  Further appointments followed, with Susan Kenny becoming the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal in July 1997.

In November 2003, the landmark appointment of Marilyn Warren, then a trial judge of the Court, as the 11th Chief Justice of Victoria and the first woman to lead any Supreme Court in Australia.

Today the Court includes 19 female judges and judicial officers, including the present Chief Justice. More broadly, 40 per cent of judicial officers in Victoria are female. Among the staff of Supreme Court, the other Victorian jurisdictions and those working in support of the jurisdictions, women make up nearly 69 per cent of all employees. At present, the Chief Executive Officer and three directors of the Supreme Court are all women.

At the same time, the Court continues the tradition of leadership in gender equality, started by pioneers such as Greig, Rosanove, Justices Balmford and Kenny and the Honourable Chief Justice Warren AC.  For example, last year President Maxwell launched the King and Wood Mallesons’ Equitable Briefing Policy in March 2017.  At that launch the President acknowledged the considerable leadership and advocacy of Justice Tate in this area.  Her Honour founded the Women Barristers Association, has supported Victorian Women Lawyers and instigated a day of moots for women barristers which has taken place annually in the Court of Appeal for the past two years.

Highlighting the work to be done

Women now represent just under 50 per cent of the legal profession, This number reflects a gradual evolution. In the 20 years after Greig was admitted in 1905, only 34 women were admitted, in comparison to 1,065 men in the same period. It was not until 1939 that the yearly admission of women rose to double digits. It took another 60 years for admissions of women to exceed those of men; this took place in 1997 when the split was 388 women to 334 men. Now about double the number of women are admitted as men. Consequently, among legal practitioners under 50 women outnumber men.

There remains a challenging gap for women barristers who make up just 29 per cent of the Victorian Bar. Further, of 309 silks listed on the Victorian Bar’s website, just 38 are women.  In 2017, five women were appointed senior counsel of 23 appointments (approximately 22 per cent of those appointed). Only 16 of 85 applicants (or 19 per cent) were women.

The Court now collects data on the number of female barristers appearing in the Court of Appeal.  In the 2016-17 financial year between 12-16 per cent of counsel appearing were women. Female counsel had a speaking role in only five per cent of civil appeals and 17 per cent of criminal appeals.

The August 2017 edition of the Law Institute Journal ‘21st Century Leaders in Law’ acknowledged the contribution of 21 female legal leaders, including Chief Justice Kiefel AC of the High Court of Australia, the Honourable Linda Dessau AC, Victoria’s first female governor, Chief Justice Warren AC and Chief Executive Officer of the Supreme Court, Louise Anderson.

Since 2015, nearly half of all appointments to the Supreme Court have been women, reflecting a pledge by the Victorian government that year. The Chief Justice referred to the need for greater diversity, including diversity of gender, in her remarks at her welcome on 12 October 2017:

Much has been made by some of the fact that I am a woman and had been a solicitor before coming to the Court. I don’t think of these things as relevant distinguishing features. I can’t wait for the day when diversity – not just gender, but cultural, intellectual and other forms of diversity – is not worthy of mention because it occurs so commonly. From my own observation, organisations that have diversity function better and make better decisions. The Court and the legal profession can make a difference in encouraging and developing diversity so that our judiciary can be drawn from a wide pool of people who have different backgrounds – whether that be gender, culture, race or experience. In the context of the Court, the beneficiary of a diverse judiciary is the community which itself is diverse.

The Supreme Court has made, and continues to make, a critical contribution to gender equality in the Victorian legal community. There remains much to be done and many exciting opportunities ahead.

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Published on 08 March 2018