Female juniors head towards equality before top court

Supreme Court: Reasons for optimism on gender representation

The ratio of women to men appearing before the Supreme Court has improved hugely in recent years at junior levels, although less so at senior levels, a comprehensive survey has shown.

The study found that the gender balance among this group of advocates was improving at a faster rate than the balance among self-employed barristers as a whole. Female juniors fared better in teams led by male counsel than female.

However, while the number of female counsel overall appearing before the House of Lords’ Appellate Committee and its successor, the Supreme Court, between 1977 in 2020 rose from zero to around one in four, among more senior women counsel the improvement in recent years had slowed.

The research was carried out by Mikolaj Barczentewicz, an associate professor in law at the University of Surrey and a research associate at Oxford University, based on a litigation dataset which included 5,000 lawyers and almost 3,000 judgments.

He said he was optimistic that growing representation among women juniors in the Supreme Court was reason to believe the situation would also improve among more senior counsel soon – counsel with more experience before the highest court “dominate litigation” there.

The graph showing improving representation among junior counsel was notable for the steady climb from none to more than one third among women.

Inexperienced juniors of up to four years’ call went on to make up nearly half (47%) of counsel making their first appearance by the 2010s.

In the past few years, 37% of counsel in family cases were women, compared to less than a fifth in civil or commercial matters.

During the same period, female junior barristers in teams led by a female seniors made up only around 5% of the total, compared to more than 60% where men led.

Mr Barczentewicz concluded it was possible that “the Supreme Court Bar is moving faster towards gender parity than the self-employed Bar in general”.

He said this finding was “striking” because almost no women had appeared before the highest court as late as the 1970s and early 1980s.

He was encouraged that the ratio of women would improve further for three reasons: he number of women juniors now appearing; the relative youth of first-time appearances by women; and male leading counsel having never had as many “women-inclusive teams” as they did now.

He recommended similar analysis of the Court of Appeal and perhaps other courts in the UK. Further research might look at how gender of counsel correlated with judicial decisions, he said.

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