O'Loan: ‘Unacceptable' lack of senior women judges

Baroness Nuala O'Loan says lack of female representation in judiciary's upper echelons is "absolutely unacceptable"

IT is "absolutely unacceptable" that not one woman sits in Northern Ireland's highest courts, former Police Ombusdman Baroness Nuala O'Loan has said.

The north is now the only jurisdiction in Ireland and Britain to have no female representative presiding in the High Court or above, leading to criticism that the talent of capable women lawyers is being wasted.

Just a handful of prominent female judges hear cases on the lower benches.

Baroness O'Loan, herself among only three women among Northern Ireland's 24 members of the House of Lords, said there is no doubt that plenty of women in the legal profession would be capable of serving in the highest courts.

"Of course it must be done on merit, but there is no doubt that there are a huge number of able women around," she said.

"I can see no justification for it. Twenty years ago I was teaching very able young women law and they have gone through that system.

"It is now 40 years since the first equality legislation was brought in in Northern Ireland and we really shouldn't have this situation.

"There must be something inherent in those who make appointments."

Ten High Court judges have been appointed since 2001 and five appeal court judges since 2007 - but all have been men.

Earlier this month, Mr Justice Ronald Weatherup and Mr Justice Reginald Weir were appointed to the Northern Ireland appeal court.

Their imminent move, in addition to an existing vacancy, leaves three empty spaces in the High Court.

The Irish News understands that two women were "deemed appointable" in a recent High Court competition, but the process has since stalled.

Judge Corinne Philpott has served in the county court since 1998 and Judge Melody McReynolds has been hearing cases there since 2004.

Only two other women have been appointed to that bench since then, Judge Patricia Smyth in 2010 and Judge Donna McColgan in 2013 - they join a phalanx of 13 men, a dozen of whom have been appointed since the millennium.

Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan identified the lack of representation of women in the judiciary as a problem in 2012, when he said hopes that historical inbalances would diminish naturally through recruitment on merit do not seem to be bearing fruit.

He said he would be to looking "at things that help or hinder progression at all career stages" and, along with the wider profession, needed to "get the evidence base as a result of the research, take the problem apart, see what steps may be needed to lever change, develop a plan and put it into action".

During a recent meeting with Stormont's justice committee, Sir Declan said within "a relatively short time period", there would be an increased representation of women in the senior judiciary.

His spokeswoman also said the four women at the County Court bench "routinely hear very serious criminal cases in the Crown Court, including serious sexual assault cases, terrorist cases, and murder and manslaughter cases".

"The Lord Chief Justice made a point of emphasising the need to encourage women to participate in the senior judiciary at the opening of the term in 2012 and as a result of this, the `Women In Law Project' was set up.

"Over the past three years, the Chief Justice has actively supported this project. Flowing from this project has been a very successful mentoring programme for women within the legal professions.

"The Chief Justice remains confident that there will soon be increased representation of women within the higher tiers of the judiciary."

Evelyn Collins, chief executive of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, said it is clear that women are "underrepresented in the highest offices of the judiciary" and it is important that work is done "to identify and remove the barriers faced by women progressing through all areas of the justice system".

"It is only when we get to positions such as district judges and positions in the Tribunals Service that we see women in greater proportions - 42 per cent of district judges and 56.5 per cent of the Tribunals Service are women," she said.

"Diversity in judicial appointments generally is important to enhance public confidence and to secure, so far as practicable, a judiciary that is reflective of the community it serves."

Assembly justice committee member Patsy McGlone said it is also keen to see the situation improved.

"It's well known that there are plenty of capable female lawyers and barristers, so why shouldn't they be moving up the ranks and getting to the top of the judiciary?" he said.

"There seems to be a glass ceiling and we will be expecting a lot more progress on that front."


Gang of Four

* Her Honour Judge Corinne Philpott was called to the Bar in 1977 and became a senior counsel (QC) in 1993, the same year she was appointed a Deputy County Court Judge.

She was appointed a County Court Judge in 1998 and in 2002 was assigned to Derry Division as Recorder before transferring to Belfast in 2008. Among the high profile cases she has presided over was the 2013 Liam Adams child sex abuse trial.

* Her Honour Judge Melody McReynolds was called to the Bar in 1982 and appointed as Master (Probate and Matrimonial) in 1999.

She became a County Court Judge in 2004 and moved between areas until she was was assigned to the Fermanagh and Tyrone Division in 2013.

* Her Honour Judge Patricia Smyth was called to the Bar in September 1986 and in 1997 she was appointed as chair of the Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunal and vice president in 2007.

She became a County Court Judge in February 2010.

* Her Honour Judge Donna McColgan was called to the Bar on in 1986.

She took silk in October 2011 and she was appointed as a County Court Judge in November 2013.


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