Nicola Berkovic | June 12, 2009
MALE barristers are taking the lion’s share of government work in the nation’s most lucrative market for legal services — NSW.
NSW government figures obtained by The Australian show women received just 26 per cent of the state government’s briefs and 17 per cent of fees generated in October to December last year.
The inequality was even more pronounced at the senior level, where females received just 16 per cent of briefs to silks and 12 per cent of fees.
The figures were released as the Law Council of Australia and Australian Women Lawyers kicked off the first comprehensive national survey to test the representation of female barristers in superior courts across the country. The NSW data showed the state fell well behind Victoria, where female barristers worked on 52 per cent of state government briefs but received just 28 per cent of the fees generated.
A spokesman for NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos said the state’s equitable briefing policy was introduced in October to address the difference.
He said it was aimed at encouraging government agencies to provide more work to female barristers and to boost their numbers at the bar.
AWL president Georgia McMaster said it was disappointing that in NSW as in Victoria, women received a disproportionate amount of fees for the work they did.
“(It) means they are basically getting the lowest type of bar work and are receiving less fees than their male counterparts,” she said.
Ms McMaster said the survey announced this week would show at a national level whether governments and large firms with equal briefing policies were providing enough high-level work to female barristers.
Ultimately, the aim was to ensure females were better represented at the bar.
“A lot of women barristers come in at the junior level and stay for three to five years and then they go again because they’re not getting the work,” she said.
“Until they start getting a really good proportion of the work, we’re not going to build up the numbers.”
Law Council president John Corcoran said the survey, due to be completed in September, would probe the number and complexity of cases in which female lawyers appear.
Data will be collected on the rate at which females appear in court, the types of matters they are involved in and the time spent in court.
Judges’ associates at the High Court, Federal Court, Family Court and the Supreme Courts and Courts of Appeal in each state and territory will complete the surveys and assess the complexity of cases.
Mr Corcoran said there was widespread concern that female barristers were under-represented across the nation.
However, this was based largely on anecdotal evidence. For the first time, the survey would gather data from every superior court to gain a clear picture of national briefing practices.
The survey, which was being conducted by independent consultants at considerable cost to the Law Council, would analyse whether females were being given a fair share of briefs.
This would help to determine whether new strategies were needed to ensure equality for women at the bar.
“We’re hoping with the survey results that this can be brought to the attention of the government who are major litigants,” he said.
The survey follows a national but less comprehensive AWL survey completed in 2006, which showed females accounted for just 20 per cent of court representations.