Erika Rackley, Durham Law School.
This post was first published in the Guardian on 22 May 2014.
What’s in a title? For Alison Russell QC, the first high court judge who will be formally addressed as Ms Justice, quite a lot it seems. Good for her, and good for the judiciary too. Though the use of Ms is hardly something new, feminists have been grappling with its meaning and significance for a while now. It’s about time the judiciary caught up.
Indeed, one might wonder whether we might do away with the gendered appendage to a judge’s title completely. Is it really necessary to continue distinguish between Mr, Mrs and Ms Justice Bloggs? Perhaps. One reason for doing so is that it reminds us that women can be judges too. When most of us think of judges we think first of (old, white) men. This presumption is problematic for a number of reasons, not least because it still fits the facts.
Just five years until the centenary of women’s admission to the legal profession, and almost half a century since Mrs Justice Lane’s ground-breaking appointment to the high court, men continue to outnumber women on its bench by around 5:1, and in the judiciary generally by about 4:1. Further up the hierarchy it is more than 25 years since Lady (then “Lord”) Justice Butler-Sloss’s pioneering appointment as president of the family division and just over a decade since Lady Hale joined the House of Lords (and the UK supreme court). Both remain the only women to have reached those positions.
Women are not the only group missing from the judiciary. About 95% of the judiciary are white. No BME judge, of either sex, has ever been appointed to the court of appeal or to the supreme court. Mrs Justice Dobbs, who retired last year, remains the only black female judge appointed to the high court.
Similarly, as noted by the president of the UK supreme court, Lord Neuberger, in a recent lecture, the inclusion of those from less privileged economic, social and educational backgrounds remains “the biggest diversity deficit” and “most difficult” problem for the judiciary, and legal profession more broadly, to address.
There is much to be done in order to ditch the stereotypes and bring our judiciary “into step” with the rest of the world. And, against this backdrop, the acceptance by the legal establishment of a title first used back in 1961 may appear to be a relatively small step. However, to think so belies its importance. For as anti-apartheid campaigner Albie Sachs noted in the late 1970s, lists of women’s “firsts” serve not simply as markers of women’s advancement, but as “reminders of continuing male domination”. His list included the first woman to conduct a murder trial, and the first to appear as counsel before the House of Lords. It’s a shame that in 2014 we are still not only noting women’s “firsts”, but have so many more to come.