gender inequality

Four women judges in the Kerala High Court is a record, but is this enough?

The representation of women in the higher judiciary remains low, with experts blaming it on gender bias and lack of incentives.

On October 5, Justice V Shircy was appointed an additional judge in the Kerala High Court, taking its count of sitting women judges to four, the highest in its history.

The three others are Justice PV Asha, Justice Anu Sivaraman and Justice Mary Joseph.

Shircy, who earlier served as a principal and sessions judge, and Joseph, who was a district judge, joined the High Court from the bench. Asha and Sivaraman were government pleaders and came from the bar.

The latest appointment has taken the percentage of women judges in the Kerala High Court to 10.5% but this is still lower than their percentage in other High Courts – 25.6% in Delhi, 15.2% in Punjab and Haryana, and 12.5% in Bombay.

“In 2014, I was the only woman judge in the Kerala High Court,” said Asha. “The next year, we got two more. And now with Shircy’s appointment, the representation of women has increased to four.”

However, Asha said it should not have taken such a long time to appoint more women to the higher judiciary.

She added, “There is no dearth of efficient women judges in Kerala. At present, women’s representation in the lower judiciary is 28.6%. So I am confident that the number of women judges will increase in future.”

While women judges struggle to make it to the higher judiciary, some have a more difficult time than others. Sivaraman said women from the bar faced more difficulties to become judges compared to their counterparts from the bench.

“Women judges in the lower courts can hope to become judges in the higher courts, but those from the bar have to stay in the demanding profession for long to make the cut,” she said.

Sivaraman said the legal profession should be made more attractive for women, and suggested that providing crèches and offering financial support to set up their own offices would help.

She added, “Many competent women have been overlooked for appointment as judges for different reasons. I think the number of women judges would increase if the system provided a level playing field in the selection process.”

Equal opportunity

Retired judge Fathima Beevi – who was the first woman to be appointed a judge in the Supreme Court – said she wanted to see more women in the higher judiciary. “It is good to know the Kerala High Court now has four sitting women judges, but I don’t think it is a big number,” she said. “The Supreme Court should appoint more women judges.”

Beevi agreed with Asha’s contention that there was no dearth of competent women judges in the state. “The selection panel should concentrate only on merit to pick the right candidates,” she said. “If we wish to see more women opt for the legal profession, then they should not face discrimination during the selection of judges.”

The Supreme Court Women Lawyers Association has raised the issue of women's representation with the apex court. It has said that the collegium – a body of senior Supreme Court judges in change of appointments to the higher judiciary – must shed its gender bias in recommending the names of advocates for appointment as judges of the apex court.

“There are just 62 women judges compared to 611 male judges in High Courts in the entire country,” said Prerna Kumari, general secretary of the lawyers’ group.

According to a media report that appeared late last year, nine of the 24 state High Courts did not have a single woman judge while three had only one woman judge. In the Supreme Court, it added, Justice R Banumathi was the sole woman among 29 judges.

Kumari hoped other High Courts in India would take a cue from Kerala and appoint more women judges. She said, “There should be greater representation of women judges in our legal system. And there should be a balance between bar and bench while selecting the judges.”

Pointing out that there was a spike in the number of women lawyers in the lower and higher judiciary, and that many of them were associating themselves with central judicial panels or working as amici curiae, she hoped the number of women judges would rise too.

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