Women in law still face a fight for gender equality

Prejudice and representation remain issues for women in the legal and justice sector

Up until very recently, almost the entire Irish justice and law enforcement structure was headed up by women.

Susan Denham, Nóirín O'Sullivan, Máire Whelan, Eileen Creedon and Frances Fitzgerald have since moved on from their former positions as chief justice, garda commissioner, attorney general, chief State solicitor and minister for justice respectively.

However Claire Loftus continues to hold the position of Director of Public Prosecutions, while Marie Cassidy is still Chief State Pathologist. The President of what is by far the busiest court in the land, the District Court, is Rosemary Horgan.

If lack of role models in senior positions is an issue for women in most sectors of society, then law and the justice arena generally is surely not one of them.


The situation may still not be perfect, but matters have changed beyond recognition since 1921 when Averil Deverell and Frances Kyle entered King's Inns to become Ireland's first female barristers.

More than 36 per cent of our judges are now women, up from 13 per cent in 1996. Three of the eight members of our Supreme Court are women: Elizabeth Dunne, Mary Finlay Geoghegan and Iseult O'Malley.

According to The Supreme Court, by Irish Times journalist Ruadhán Mac Cormaic, one of the consequences of the sometimes heated dispute between the government and the judiciary over pay some years ago, was a resolve among politicians to put more women in the Supreme Court. At the time, Ms Justice Denham was the only woman member.

Figures from the Courts Service show the Court of Appeal comes out worst in terms of gender mix, with only 20 per cent of its judges being women. The Circuit Court scores best, with more than 40 per cent women judges, while the court that is the most common point of contact between the public and the judicial system, the District Court, has just below 36 per cent.

Specialist areas

As well as featuring in the higher echelons of the sector, women lawyers are also now commonly engaged in specialist areas that might formerly have been viewed as male preserves.

Ailish Finnerty is a partner with Arthur Cox solicitors. She specialises in tax planning for international clients doing business in and through Ireland, as well as multibillion euro corporate acquisitions. Two out of the three tax partners at the firm are women.

Her work regularly involves dealing directly with the in-house lawyers of major multinationals. In her experience, at least half of these lawyers are women. Client unhappiness or hesitation arising from her being a woman solicitor “does not arise”, she says.

Female representation at partner level in her firm is at 30 per cent. “We’re proud of that. It’s an improvement on what it was, but our work won’t be completed until it’s over 50 per cent.”

In Ireland, 65 per cent of law graduates are women and, she says, the firm’s employment record reflects this. There are “lots of capable, bright, engaging women graduates out there” and in her experience Irish law firms have no difficulty with hiring them.

As time passes, the higher level of women graduating in law will manifest itself in the gender balance at the highest levels in the industry. Meanwhile, she says, senior figures have to continuously “call out” instances of bias and remember that more junior members of the profession are watching how they act.

Finnerty argues against complacency and says that on a general level, “unconscious bias” is the most difficult issue to deal with.

The chair of the Bar Council's Women's Working Group, Grainne Larkin, says one of the most striking aspects of the gender issue in the barristers' profession is the number of women who drop out of it after 10 years.

“The self-employed lifestyle is very difficult once you have a family,” she says, and there is also an issue of getting your practice back on its feet after you have returned [from maternity leave].

Female barristers

There are also sectoral issues. While women barristers are plentiful in some sectors, such as family law, they can be less common in others.

In criminal law, the prejudice against female barristers can have its roots in the mostly male clients, who may object to being represented by a woman. This, Larkin says, may be less common when the client is facing a sexual crime charge.

The Commercial Court, well-known as a lucrative place for barristers, tends to be dominated by male practitioners.

“Commercial briefs tend to flow from male solicitors to male barristers,” an unnamed observer told the Bar Council in 2016 when it published figures showing that while 39 per cent of barristers were women, only 16 per cent of senior counsel were.

Larkin says the relatively small pool of women senior counsels in part explains their relative absence from such lucrative areas as commercial law, medical negligence or the High Court generally.

However she also says the number of younger women barristers now playing a role in substantial cases in these courts is a cause for optimism.

On the crime front, she mentions the role played by Shelley Horan last year in the area of white collar crime as an instance of encouragement for other young women.

The director general of the Law Society, Ken Murphy, has said it is important to point out that growing gender equality in the law doesn't change a thing as far as outcomes are concerned. "Lady Justice is blind, and all are equal before the law."

But as former minister for justice Frances Fitzgerald noted when discussing the composition of the judiciary, it is important for the public, when they come in contact with the law, to see it is being run by people who in broad terms are representative of the community from which that person comes.