Eighty years after women first started practising law, the UK's highest court has its first female judge - Lady Brenda Hale. At all levels of the judiciary, there are but a handful of women on the benches.
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine
Dame Brenda Hale joins the ranks of the law lords on Monday, the first woman to be appointed as one of 12 judges who will sit in the proposed supreme court.
Lady Hale, the first female Law Lord
Most of those appointed as judges are white men, simply because most senior lawyers - from whose ranks the judiciary is chosen - are white men. In the High Court and above, women make up just 7% of the judiciary. In Scotland, three of the 32 senior judges are women, as are 23 of the 135 judges who sit in the Sheriff Courts.
In a lecture published in the journal Public Law, Lady Hale argued that there are plenty of able lawyers who could make the judiciary more representative of the society it serves.
"This matters because democracy matters," she wrote. "We are the instrument by which the will of Parliament and government is enforced upon the people. It does matter that judges should be no less representative of the people than the politicians and civil servants who govern us."
HOW MANY WOMEN JUDGES?
High Court: 7/107
Circuit judges: 60/610
District court: 82/436
Figures as of Dec 2003
And in an interview last September, she said she had been "deeply affronted" by the way judges' official lodgings are run like gentlemen's clubs, where ladies are expected to retire after dinner. On at least one occasion, she had refused to leave the dining room.
But change is afoot, even though it is expected to take up to 20 years for the balance to be redressed as under-represented groups move up the judicial ladder.
The appointments system - in which the government relied on "secret soundings", or recommendations from those already on the bench, when choosing judges - is being overhauled. With the sweeping away of the post of Lord Chancellor, a new judicial appointments commission will recommend candidates for the bench.
There has been a shake-up, too, on the lower rungs. The Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, has launched a fast track programme for clerical workers in the Crown Prosecution Service to qualify as lawyers.
As many are women returning to work after having children, and those from groups under-represented at university, the hope is that they will progress through the ranks, broadening the pool of judicial applicants in the process.
The US, Canada and New Zealand all have women judges in their highest courts, as did Australia until recently. Canada, which had its first woman supreme court judge in 1982, now has three out of nine and is headed by a woman chief justice.
For Lady Hale, her own appointment is something of a landmark, breaking "the last barrier that there has been within the legal system to the advancement of women."