Women in the legal profession have historically been disadvantaged and underrepresented. As we have reached the mid-point of 2016, we examine the recent key milestones and developments of women’s roles in the legal workforce and whether these developments are enough.
In March 2016, the Queensland Law Society reported that the percentage of women in the legal industry was nearing 50%, comprising 47.9% of its members and up 0.7% from the year before. The last National Profile report by the Law Society stated that in 2014, 51.5% of solicitors were male, and 48.5% were female. Interestingly, where the gender ratios of most states were similar, both the NT and ACT reported a higher proportion of women solicitors. This increase of female lawyers in the profession has dramatically increased since 2011 with far more female solicitors entering the profession than male in the last ten years.
The fairly recent increase in numbers for women also means that the majority of female solicitors have five years or less of post-admission experience behind them. While the almost equal gender split is encouraging, each state and territories’ law societies should also take steps to ensure that the gender balance is equally strong at a higher career level.
New Domestic Violence Units
On 15 March 2016, Sydney received its first Legal Aid domestic violence unit as the first of a series of 12 federally funded domestic violence units. It operates as a ‘one-stop’ shop for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, allowing them access to lawyers who will represent them for hearings at local courts and further provide them access to social workers for support and advice. This shows a stronger focus by the government on addressing women-centred issues in the law as well as reflects a priority on women’s safety.
More recently in April 2016, the National Legal Aid has revealed a widespread endemic of domestic violence in the last year with 79% of its family law cases involving domestic violence. It has called for more funding in light of this new data. The statistic shows that more is needed to combat the issue of domestic violence and that while particular domestic violence units under Legal Aid is a good first step, evidently more resources are needed to be distributed to the issue.
Two Years of Female Judiciary Appointments
In March 2016, the Women Lawyers Association of NSW celebrated 14 female judicial appointments in the Federal and NSW courts in the last two years. In her keynote speech, Justice Beazley stated that women made up around one-third of Australian judges, notably a larger gap than the gender split in solicitors.
While the judiciary has been slower to change and welcome women to the bench, the last few years has shown a marked increase and encouraging numbers. Just as it is important to have women equally represented as professionals in the workforce and court, female judges also play a major role in the judiciary itself, and having an even split in this area will lend credibility and legitimacy to Australia’s legal system.
Positive developments can be seen to have emerged in all aspects of the legal profession regarding women’s role and the representation of women. While still not perfect, it is important to take note of what has changed, the distance the law has come, and what areas still require attention.
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