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Women barristers make brief gains

News

Cite as: (2007) 81(7) LIJ, p. 23


Women barristers are receiving more briefs, but not in big cases.

Two reports highlighting briefing practices according to gender show women barristers are receiving more work.

However, the reports also show that they are still in danger of being trapped by professional area stereotype, with the results skewed by the high number of women appearing in child and family matters.

According to the Victorian Government’s Legal Services Annual Report 2005-06 and Barristers Briefing Report 2005-06, women barristers received 52 per cent of the briefs from government departments, the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office (VGSO) and firms on the Government Legal Services Panel in 2005-06.

Women earned 32 per cent of fees under the panel arrangements in the 12-month period, up from 26 per cent the previous year.

State Attorney-General Rob Hulls said he was happy with the figures of increased participation, but warned the pressure to positively allocate more work to women would have to continue.

The figures do not include statutory authorities, as they are not required to report on their briefing of barristers under the panel arrangements.

Some authorities, including the Transport Accident Commission and Victoria Legal Aid, volunteered this information.

The government department figures were also swamped by the high volumes of lower paid briefs for court appearances by the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Court Advocacy Unit.

Government departments briefed women in 58 per cent of cases, or 37 per cent if Children’s Court matters are excluded.

The year prior, departments briefed women in 61 per cent of cases, or 30 per cent without the Children’s Court briefs.

Mr Hulls said while the Children’s Court accounted for the highest number of junior briefs to women, it provided a good grounding in gaining skills during the early years at the Bar.

Member of the Women Barristers Association and the Victorian Bar Council’s Equal Opportunity Committees, Fiona McLeod SC said while the welfare and child protection matters briefed principally to women were vital, they encouraged specialisation.

This specialisation made it more difficult for women to cross into other jurisdictions traditionally reserved for men, such as personal injuries and commercial work.

“We know women are not appearing in those cases in numbers and the numbers have not improved despite nearly 10 years of work by the Victorian Bar Council to improve the position,” she said.

“The reports postulate that this is because women in those fields do not have the seniority, expertise or availability.

Panel firms – private sector firms entitled to provide legal services to government clients, the VGSO and government departments – apply the Victorian Bar’s Equality of Opportunity in Briefing Policy in their briefing of barristers to undertake government work.

The policy is designed to gradually encourage cultural change, leading to more gender diversity in the selection of barristers for government work.

Ms McLeod said despite the government’s policies, unless solicitors delivering the briefs were prepared to consider women barristers on the big cases, women generally would continue to struggle.

The Victorian Bar Council’s Equal Opportunity Committee chair Alexandra Richards QC said the figures showed a marked improvement and were commendable.

However, the Bar took issue with the statement made in the reports and echoed by Mr Hulls that the DHS Court Advocacy Unit “provided both men and women barristers with a reliable and regular source of income whilst developing advocacy skills in the early years at the Bar before proceeding to other areas”.

She said the women briefed by the DHS were not confined to young female barristers but ranged across all levels of seniority among women at the Bar.

LIV president Geoff Provis welcomed the advances for women barristers described in the reports but agreed that much more needed to be done.

“Law firms are to be congratulated for their role in advancing equal opportunity in the area of briefing barristers,” Mr Provis said.

“It is to be hoped that the next report will show even greater advances on this front as it is a whole-of-profession issue.”

Both reports are available from the Department of Justice website at http://www.justice.vic.gov.au

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