By Suzi Ring, Bloomberg News
London’s female trial lawyers have scored a small but symbolic victory: access to the men’s locker room.
The new unisex space at Southwark Crown Court, one of London’s most famous courthouses and the stage for prosecutions in Libor, came after female barristers complained about being left out of conversations on their cases with male peers. While the change may seem minor, it comes just as the U.K. appointed a female Supreme Court president, a first in a field dominated at the top by men.
The British judiciary and trial lawyers have long struggled with gender balance. The number of women becoming trial attorneys, known as barristers, was slightly higher than men in 2016, yet only 14 percent of the best-paid tier, known as Queen’s Counsel, is female, according to a December report from the U.K. Bar Standards Board.
“Gender should play no part in the role or status of a barrister,” Judge Deborah Taylor, the judge who made the room change in Southwark, said in an emailed statement. Some women said exclusion from the locker room meant “agreements were made before they were consulted.”
Barristers use the rooms to put their black gowns over their clothes and don white wigs, which are usually made of horsehair. The costume is required in most courts and dates to medieval times.
The small victories for women highlight the bigger problem. In most business-crime cases with multiple defendants, for example, there is rarely more than one female barrister taking the lead job for a client. This was the case in the U.K.’s largest insider-dealing prosecution last year against five defendants, and all four of the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, benchmark rigging trials.
Even when clients are selecting a barrister to run their case, there are often no women competing for the job, according to Gideon Cammerman QC, who specializes in fraud cases.
“Sadly, it is rare to be up against women in legal ‘beauty parades,’” Cammerman said. “In fact, I have hardly ever seen more than one woman at a beauty parade to select a leader” on a case.
A shortage of senior female barristers also has a knock-on affect on the judiciary, as most of the judges come from the ranks of trial attorneys. Fewer than a third of Britain’s judges were women as of April 2017, according to data published last month by the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary.
The statistics show why the July announcement that Judge Brenda Hale will become Supreme Court president in October was significant. Hale, who is outspoken about the need for diversity, said in 2015 the Supreme Court should be “ashamed” if it didn’t fill upcoming vacant posts with women. The second-ever woman will join Hale on the 12-strong panel later this year.
In a speech given by Hale to a law summer school published Friday, she emphasized the need for the British judiciary to attract and promote women.
“It is a priority to achieve better representation of half the human race on the bench,” Hale said. “Judging should be informed as much by the experience of leading a woman’s life as it is by the experience of leading a man’s.”
There’s still a long way to go, lawyers say. One key issue is that barristers are largely self-employed so taking time out for children is hard and can put women several years behind male peers in seniority.
Many barristers and judges are also concerned a new government initiative to extend court hours may put more pressure on child-care arrangements. Later this year, half a dozen courts will pilot the new hours for six months.
Any changes to court hours will be taken after full consideration of the pilot program, according to a government spokeswoman. The pilot is part of a 1 billion-pound ($1.3 billion) investment to modernize courts, with an aim to make the hours more flexible, particularly for legal professionals with family-care duties, she said.
Kerim Fuad, a QC responsible for representing the profession in southeast England, said he and his peers are concerned a number of women may leave the field even during the pilot period because they’re unable to manage.
“This government, they keep trumpeting when it suits them that they’re very pro diversity and equality but this step is absolutely baffling,” Fuad said in a phone interview. “It’s so frustrating to have two steps forward and then one back.”
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