Women in law still face a fight for gender equality

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.