New research shows female barristers or solicitors make up just 27 percent of lead counsel appearances before the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

Despite there being an equal number of female and male lawyers practising in New Zealand, The New Zealand Bar Association report released today shows women have made up less than 30 percent of lead counsel appearing before the Court of Appeal each year, over six years.

The proportion of lead counsel appearing before the Supreme Court who were women exceeded 30 percent only once, in 2017. The previous year, 2016, the figure was only 19.21 percent.

The data was drawn from around 400 cases involving an oral hearing in the Court of Appeal per year, and around 100 delivered judgments in the Supreme Court per year.  

Only nine percent of appearances by Queen Counsels were women. Overall, there is an 80:20 split of male/female QCs in New Zealand.

Numbers greatly differ between appellant and respondent representation in civil and criminal jurisdictions. For example, women have made up less than 20 percent of lead counsel for the appellant in either the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal in every year surveyed.

In a criminal court context, other than this year, “women have never reached a level of involvement as lead counsel that matches or even comes near to the level that would reflect the constitution of the legal profession”, the report says.

The disparity between courts and jurisdictions gave rise to whether Crown presence made an impact. The overall figure of female representation dropped to 16 percent when the Crown Law Office was excluded from the data.

Meanwhile, Crown Law has been criticised in the past over its poor female representation and parity.

According to a 2017 States Services Commission report, 68.3 percent of Crown Law employees in 2017 were women. Of those in senior management roles, 42.1 percent were women.

At the Ministry of Justice, 68.3 percent of employees were women in 2017, with the total number of women in senior management positions being 52.3 percent. Looking at the average across all public services, women made up 60.5 percent of the workforce, and 47.9 percent of senior management positions.

Law Society president Kathryn Beck says the message is very clear. “Over the last six years there has been little change in what is an unacceptable low proportion of women appearing as counsel in the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. With women now making up over half the legal profession, the fact that they made up just 25 percent of lead counsel appearances there must be addressed.

Beck said more work was needed “to address the disparity and close the gap so that women have an equal opportunity to appear.

“Law firms, corporate clients and corporate counsel can all play a part. As with all things in this area, it is down to each individual taking personal responsibility for change.” 

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