The appointment of Baroness Brenda Hale to the position of President of the Supreme Court is, historically, a first – never before has the British Supreme Court had a woman as its leader. This appointment comes 13 years after Supreme Justice Hale was initially welcomed to the Supreme Court’s bench and has been hailed by many as a triumph for gender equality within the UK’s legal system. In fact, the legal editor of the Guardian, Owen Bowcott, went so far as to say that her appointment is a “resounding victory in the long campaign for gender equality among the senior judiciary”.
Bowcott’s assertion that this appointment is a “resounding victory”, however, may be a little exaggerated. In actual fact, Hale is one of only two women currently serving in the Supreme Court. When we compare this to the ten men who serve, we gain a much clearer understanding of the state of gender equality within our legal system.
Hale herself has always been scathing of the Supreme Court’s failings when it comes to appointing female judges. In her book Women and the Law, Hale accuses our legal system of continuing “to reflect the economic, social and political dominance of men”. This is undoubtedly true not just in the Supreme Court, but the legal system at wide: in the Court of Appeals and the High Court, women make up only 8 out of 42 judges and 21 out of 106 respectively.
Worryingly, this lack of diversity in the upper echelons of the legal system have implications not just for female lawyers and judges, but for the wider practice and implementation of the law. A study done by the University of Nebraska in 2001 found that the outcome of trials can be and is effected by the gender of the judge. Male judges only send 12% of female defendants to prison (due to what they call a “chivalry complex”), but in the case of female judges this figure rises to 20%.
The appointment of female judges to top legal positions doesn’t just have an impact on the sentencing of felons, but has ramifications for wider society. In the American case of Davis vs. Monroe, Supreme Justice Sandra Day O’Connor broke from her male colleagues (and her usually conservative stance) and voted to support the motion that it is the responsibility of schools to actively prevent the sexual harassment of girls on campus. Her decision to do so swung the vote, which was 5 to 4 in favour of the new law.
In an even broader sense, the negative impact of this lack of representation hurts women everywhere. Where it is important to see more diversity in films, magazines and advertising, the same is true of all levels of our judicial and legislative councils. The lack of women in the Supreme Court can and does actively discourage young women at schools and universities from aiming for these powerful positions, an argument that can also be made regarding the inclusion of BME, LGBTQ+ and disabled people in this and similar areas of employment. While the well-deserved appointment of Baroness Hale to the position of President of the Supreme Court is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a very long way to go before we will see and benefit from a diverse and representative judiciary body at the top of the UK’s legal hierarchy.
Image: Rwendland via Wikimedia Commons