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Gender shakeup for judiciary

Briefs

Cite as: May 2015 89 (4) LIJ, p.13

Women will equal men in number on the bench under new rules.

The government has set a female quota of at least 50 per cent in all Victorian courts and government board appointments.

Currently, about a quarter of Supreme Court judges are female and about one third of County Court judges are female, according to Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL).

The new commitment to workplace equality, supported by the state opposition, was announced by Premier Daniel Andrews at the state Labor conference in Melbourne in March.

“I’m sick of walking into meetings and seeing a room full of blokes sitting around the table,” said Mr Andrews, whose front bench has nine women on it. The federal government front bench has one woman on it. “It’s not a target, it’s not an aspiration. It’s an assurance. Of all of the appointments my government makes between now and November 2018, at least one half of them will be women, and I’ll be held accountable for it. Equity is not negotiable.”

Attorney-General Martin Pakula echoed the Premier’s sentiments. “This is a step forward for our state and a step towards ensuring the leadership of our justice system reflects contemporary Victoria,”

Mr Pakula said. “Female representation on major government boards in Victoria has fallen from 40 per cent to a little over 35 per cent in four years. When it comes to Supreme and County Courts, less than a third of judges are women.

“Ultimately, if we’re going to ensure a balance of skills, views, experiences and knowledge within our justice system – we need to ensure a balance of gender.”

The LIV welcomed the commitment, which would take some time to filter through in Victoria’s courts as judges are appointed until they retire aged 70. LIV president Katie Miller said the overdue commitment would ensure the judiciary reflected society’s make-up. “I welcome the government’s challenge to its own unconscious biases by committing to women being 50 per cent of their appointments to the judiciary and public sector boards.

“Appointments should always be based on merit – but we should also be honest with ourselves about how our own experiences and assumptions about what a ‘judge’ or a ‘board member’ look like do not blind us to the merit that exists across the legal profession.”

VWL convenor Kirsten Adams said the 50/50 gender policy for judicial appointments is “a good start and about time”.

Gender quotas had been contentious in the past with opposition from those who believe the current system is fair, appropriately recognises and rewards merit and is not affected by gender discrimination. But there was a growing understanding of the business case and public policy rationale for gender diverse leadership. “Women in the profession deserving of recognition are repeatedly overlooked as a direct result of gender discrimination and unconscious bias. Gender quotas are a way to uncover merit, not devalue it,” Ms Adams said.

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