Kate Eastman SC

In 1903 Victoria was the first Australian State to admit women to the legal profession. It was followed by Tasmania in 1904, Queensland in 1905 and South Australia in 1911. On 26 November 1918, the Women's Legal Status Act (NSW)removed the disqualification for women holding positions or practising professions including local government, justices, magistrates and legal practitioners in New South Wales. In 1921, Miss Ada Evans (who graduated in 1902) was the first woman admitted in New South Wales but did not practice. In 1924, Mrs Sybil Morrison commenced practice as first woman barrister in New South Wales.

Up until the mid-1980s, progress was slow for women joining the legal profession. Women now outnumber male law graduates. Since 1995, the number of female solicitors has increased by 300.4% (from 3,554 to 14,230) compared to male solicitors at 59%.  By 2017, the majority of solicitors in New South Wales were women.  

However, the number of women coming to the Bar in New South Wales lags behind the women solicitors. In January 2019, 23% of the 2404 barristers in New South Wales are women.  The Bar remains male dominated and the majority of barristers are men over the age of 50 (48% of all barristers).  By comparison, male solicitors over the age of 50 comprise around 19% of all solicitors.  For Senior Counsel/Queens Counsel, there are 44 women silk (11.25% of all silk but 1.8% of the total Bar) and 347 male silk (comprising 14.4% of the total Bar). 

Women hold about 24% of all judicial positions in Australia. Notably, three of the seven judges of the High Court of Australia are women, including the first woman Chief Justice, the Hon Susan Kiefel AC.

The Australian Bars recognise the need to attract and retain women.  A major study undertaken by the Law Council of Australia in 2013 resulted in a number of initiatives:

  • The Gender Equitable Briefing Policy - includes interim and long-term targets with the ultimate aim of briefing women in at least 30% of all briefs and paying 30% of the value of all brief fees by 2020. The Policy is intended to drive cultural change within the legal profession, support the progression and retention of women barristers, and address the significant pay gap and underrepresentation of women in the superior courts. 

  • National Uniform Barristers Rules  that prohibit barristers engaging in discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying in the course of legal practice.

In New South Wales, the Bar Association has implemented the following measures:

  • Model Best Practice Guidelines to assist barristers and chambers address discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, grievance handling and flexible working arrangements. 

  • Fee Waiverfor barristers taking parental or carers' leave. 

  • Childcare -the Bar Association has entered into agreement with a major childcare provider and it underwrites childcare places to assist barristers in accessing childcare. 

  • Court Sitting Protocol  for judges and counsel to agree on sitting hours to provide certainty for barristers with carers' responsibilities. 

  • The Bar Association's Strategic Plancommits to improving diversity, removing barriers to entry and advancement of women at the Bar. 

  • Other initiatives have included:

    • Standing committees: Diversity & Equality; First Nations; Wellbeing; Women Barristers Forum

    • A mentoring scheme offered to all barristers in their second year of practice

    • Advocates for Change- Three Senior Counsel appointed to lead on gender, LGBTI+ and cultural diversity issues at the Bar

    • Membership of Pride in Diversity

    • Women law students and LGBTI students open days

    • Collection of diversity data

    • Research of flexible working practices, barriers to entry and retention of women barristers with disability and age

    • Ongoing education and publications directed to a range of diversity issues, including unconscious bias and intersectionality

    • Participation in the Australian Human Rights Commission National Sexual Harassment Inquiry (2018 - 2019).

There is more Australian Bars can do to attract and retain women. Like all independent referral bars, we must adapt to the changing needs of our clients and the expectations of the community.  Our leaders must commit to implementing effective strategies to remove barriers to entry and ensure the culture in chambers and courts is inclusive, fair and equal. The saying'you can't be, what you can't see'is apt for the Bar. Women need to be visible in leadership roles, be it as silk, Bar leaders or in judicial positions.

My hope for the next 100 years is that the women will no longer have to blaze trails, rather than trails will be open, welcoming and accessible.

Kate Eastman SC is a leading silk in the field of discrimination, employment and human rights law. She chairs the Australian Bar Association's Diversity Committee, the Law Council of Australia's Equal Opportunity Committee and the New South Wales Bar Association's Diversity & Equality Committee.