A question in the courtroom

The article in Sydney Morning Herald is a good example of why research must be considered thoughtfully before we take it at face value. I have not read the initial research, but Amelia Loughland hopefully clarified to readers that her sampling was small and the results probably not statistically meaningful. Too often the press sees a headline that will grab eyes, so I’m grateful to see clarification and most importantly further research.

To add background to the story, I asked my colleague, author Alan Leek to comment on the judicial system. Alan was the police commander in a suburb of Sydney for some years before retiring. Cabramatta at that time was the most ethnically diverse population of all of Australia. Here are his comments. Please note the Australian spelling:

“This is an enlargement of the earlier study of only a two-year period which showed that the smaller sample gave a false result.  There is no doubt that men have louder voices than women, but they would have to be very brave to cross the line with the Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, who is no pushover.  She left school at 15 and worked in a law office as a stenographer.  Studied law and excelled.

It would be a different story in the male dominated profession of law.  There are plenty of examples of bullying and harassment within that sphere and one former High Court Judge has recently been outed for abysmal behaviour towards women – sexual predation – which has started a move to have better measures in place to detect it. Women, lawyers, barristers and judges have come out to claim being his victims. The former judge has strenously denied all allegations by his accusers.

With that and other instances, the law has been shown to be an unsafe environment for women.  One former Queensland judge, now dead, has been shown to be a violent wife beater, who married his housekeeper and left his estate to her so his former wife couldn’t claim anything.   Totally unsuitable for the bench.   They have been on a pedestal for centuries, but their time is coming.  So too, the medical profession, which has been shown to be rife with sexual predation and abuse.   Victims are becoming empowered, largely through solidarity I think and the realisation that institutions are being pressured to change their game.  Long, long overdue.

So, in short, my guess is that female judges in lower courts, if their cases were examined in a similar way, would be found to be addressed differently than male judges.  Remember that the judges were, in all likelihood male lawyers before their elevation in a time when women were held back.  Once women became more prominent on the bench, it would be recognised that they had fought their way there and not likely to take too much nonsense, if any.

They certainly have power, despite knowing many of the lawyers who appear before them from a former life.  It is widely recognised that judges give a little to all lawyers, but there must be a decorous separation and respect.  A study of these lower courts would be interesting. I can’t recall any of the women on the High Court bench being wallflowers.  They have to be exceptional or they would not be there.  There are seven High Court Judges and currently three are women, including the Chief Justice. Since 1989 there have been five female High Court judges including the three three incumbents. In 2016 the latest figures available show that in the Federal jurisdictions there were 56 female judges and 100 male. They are not elected, but selected from a list of nominees put up by their peers. They must retire, I think, at 70.  The effect of the retirement is that you ensure that morbidity doesn’t take hold, the bench is refreshed and outcomes reflect the changing views of society.

Finally, no political interference is allowed.  No politician would dare attack a judge. There have been a few examples in the recent past and the politicians foolish enough to do it, have not endeared themselves to the public.”

(Editor’s note: Alan does not clarify: if the judging peers are male-centric, how does the peer selection overcome that lens in the built in bias.)

Next week I will again address anxiety on this small island. I thought we would adapt, but from my most reliable sources–hairdressers and barbers– we are often suffering in silence or in anger.

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