Tasmanian Women Lawyers Speech

Tasmanian Women Lawyers Association

Speech by the Honourable Chief Justice Peter Underwood AO
19 July 2007

I have often thought that it will be a good day when the Tasmanian Women Lawyers Association winds up it affairs and ceases to exist. Now I hasten to add that in saying that I am not overlooking the not inconsiderable advantages of a free drink and an opportunity to socialise with an interesting group of lawyers, nor should you regard me as a misogamist. But I do look forward to the day – which I hope is not far off – when the gender of a lawyer is a totally irrelevant consideration. I venture to guess that the provenance of this Association lies in the fact that women lawyers were not treated as the equal of male lawyers; women lawyers were denied access to senior partnerships in legal firms and women lawyers were not chosen for judicial office. Now I know that those disadvantages still exist today, thus giving nourishment to this organisation, but I would like to think that they are gradually getting less and less. Not so long ago I noticed that I was the only male sitting in the criminal court. The accused was a woman and the warder was a woman. Both counsel were female as was my associate and attendant. I was pleased to report that this situation was not so unbelievable that it immediately struck me as unusual, but when I did become aware of it I reflected that when I was at University there was not a single woman in the whole of the law school. How things have changed for the better since then. More significantly so far as the aspirations of this organisation are concerned, my staff have reported that the same thing happened just the other week – there was only one male in the courtroom but this time the male wasn’t the judge!! So I hope that this change, and a change in attitude by those male lawyers who cling to outmoded and wrong ideas and by the public generally, will ultimately see the disbandment of the Tasmanian Women Lawyers Association – and of course, me attending the final grand cocktail party.

I think that the results of this survey conducted by the Australian Women Lawyers Association, lend support to the proposition that the day of your disbandment may not be so far off after all. First of all, I note with pleasure that the heads of all jurisdictions who were asked to cooperate with the survey agreed to do so – something that I doubt would have happened a decade or two ago. The downside of the survey is of course, that in most Australian jurisdictions the percentage of women taking a senior advocacy role is very low, confirming the anecdotal evidence that lead to the survey being undertaken. However, quite a different picture emerged from Tasmania, as you know.

It would be interesting to find out why the percentage of women appearing in senior roles in substantial litigation is so low in the other Australian jurisdictions. If it is because women are not being briefed because they are women, then the Australian Women Lawyers Association has got a lot of work in front of it to change societal attitudes; attitudes that are probably not confined to the legal profession alone but shared with the clients, especially the corporate clients, of that profession. It maybe, as Julia Gillard said in a recent interview talking about politics but she could have been talking about advocacy, “There has been some historic imagery that women aren’t cut out for adversarial politics”. She said that she never thought that was true and it was wrong to think that women would make the structures into what she called, some cuddly encounter group.

However, if the explanation for the results of the survey in other jurisdictions is that only a small percentage of women have the requisite years of experience at the Bar to qualify for senior advocacy roles then it is only a matter of time before this imbalance is rectified. However, that is not an explanation accepted by Caroline Kirton, the former President of the Australian Women Lawyers Association. She says that poor representation of women is not due to what she calls the “trickle up” theory, and advocates that a further in depth study be done and that that study include a qualitative element to find out why women are under-represented at senior level. I would support such a study.

Returning to the results of the study, it is gratifying to see that this State led all other jurisdictions by a country mile with a higher percentage of appearances by women lawyers in criminal cases than in any other State of Territory. Just over 50% of all counsel appearing in the Tasmanian Supreme Court sitting in its criminal jurisdiction were women. Although the survey showed that it was commonly the case that the percentage of women counsel was higher in criminal cases than it was in civil cases, that percentage was nowhere near as high as it was in this State.

I think that the survey showed that in civil cases, the percentage of women counsel in this State was higher in only 3 of the other 12 jurisdictions that were surveyed. I know that the obvious explanation for Tasmanian women lawyers leading the way is that Tasmanian women lawyers are better lawyers than women lawyers in other jurisdictions!! But whatever the reason, and although I admit that there is still a way to go, I think that we should regard the survey results with some pride and look forward to the day when the gender of a lawyer is completely irrelevant – and perhaps – the wind up cocktail party of the organisation that used to exist because women lawyers were not treated equally.