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Law Society -Legal News Summary 9 March 2018

Today's rundown:

  • International Women's Day coverage
  • Justice secretary delays review into civil legal aid cuts
  • Police computer locks up suspects based on postcode
  • Also worth a read
    • International survey of women lawyers
    • Legal profession must break its glass ceiling
    • Sexual harassment in law firms

International survey of women lawyers

The Guardian, Legal Futures, Law Society Gazette, New Law Journal, Legal Business, Legal Cheek & The Times Brief

Three-quarters (74%) of male lawyers believe there has been progress on gender equality in the legal profession over the past five years but less than half (48%) of their female colleagues agree, a global survey has found.

The survey of almost 7,800 lawyers by the Law Society – published to coincide with International Women's Day – also said that unconscious bias was the most commonly identified barrier preventing women from reaching senior positions.

Over half of lawyers cited unconscious bias (52%), followed by 49% naming the "unacceptable" work/life balance demanded for senior level jobs and 46% male-orientated networks or routes to promotion.

The survey, described by the society as the biggest ever international study of women in the law, gathered responses from 7,781 lawyers, including 5,758 women, 554 men and 1,449 whose gender was unknown. Two-thirds (67%) of the lawyers were based in England and Wales.

"As women solicitors practising in England and Wales outnumber men for the first time in history, people working in law ... have spoken out about the challenges the profession faces in achieving gender equality," the Law Society's vice president, Christina Blacklaws, said."While more and more women are becoming lawyers, this shift is not yet reflected at more senior levels in the profession. Our survey and a wider programme of work ... seeks to understand progress, barriers and support remedies. "Unconscious bias in the legal profession is the most commonly identified barrier to career progression for women, while flexible working is seen as a remedy by an overwhelming 91% of respondents to our survey."Interestingly, while half of all respondents said they thought there had been progress on gender equality over the last five years, there was a significant difference in perception by gender with 74% of men reporting progress in gender equality compared to only 48% of women."

Full story in The Guardian – scroll to 12:10pm in the feed

More coverage in Legal FuturesLaw Society GazetteNew Law JournalLegal BusinessLegal Cheek and The Times Brief (subscription required)

Read our press release


Legal profession must break its glass ceiling

Financial Times

For his summing up, Lord Justice Phillimore was in little doubt: "There has never been a suggestion that the office of attorney was one which was open to a woman," he wrote.

More than a century has passed since the case of Bebb v Law Society in 1913, when the UK's Court of Appeal upheld the Law Society's ban on women

working as lawyers. Gwyneth Bebb, who gave her name to the case, and three other women who brought the challenge were not deemed to qualify as "people" under the 1843 Solicitors Act. After the first world war, however, attitudes had changed: the barrier to women becoming lawyers was removed in 1919 with the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act.

Neither Phillimore nor Bebb would recognise the legal sector today, in Britain or elsewhere.

According to figures from the Law Society, which promotes and supports solicitors in England and Wales, women account for 60 per cent of newly qualified and nearly half of all solicitors.

More than two-thirds of law students are female. Other statistics paint a less positive picture.

They depict a profession that welcomes women as pupils and trainees and gives them opportunities to progress, but only so far.

The proportion of female partners in the top 10 UK law firms is 18 per cent, according to a 2017 survey by professional services firm PwC — and only 19 per cent in the next 15 firms.

What would Bebb's assessment have been? "She would be incredibly proud of the women who followed her," says Christina Blacklaws, incoming president of the Law Society.

"Women are thriving and breaking new ground in all areas of our profession," Ms Blacklaws adds.

"What we want is for ordinary hard-working women to do as well as ordinary hard-working men, not just the stellar women. Then we'll have true equality."

Full story in the Financial Times


Sexual harassment in law firms

Financial Times

When the managing partner at Jane's law firm entered her hotel room and insisted they have another drink, all she could think about was how to extricate herself without losing her job.

The company had been celebrating a deal and Jane, a paralegal at the time, had been persuaded to miss the last train home with the promise of a taxi, which long after midnight turned into a hotel booking.

Once in her room, her boss suggested they move to the bed to "get comfortable" and tried to kiss and grope her.

A few weeks later, Jane was fired. To get her severance payment, she had to sign a non-disclosure agreement barring her from talking about her ordeal.

As the #MeToo movement sweeps from Hollywood to business and politics, the legal sector is turning out to be particularly vulnerable to allegations of harassment. There is a marked gender imbalance at the top and junior employees work closely with, and are heavily dependent on, senior lawyers — who are overwhelmingly male — for career progression.

"You don't want to be labelled a troublemaker, someone who is not part of the banter, part of the club," said another lawyer, a remark echoed by several women interviewed by the Financial Times. Their names have been changed to protect their identity.

Christina Blacklaws, vice-president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: "Sexual harassment is illegal. Just as anyone is protected by the law, they should also be protected by employers — law firms included."

Full story in the Financial Times

Other coverage:

Solicitor Clare Murray writes a comment piece in The Times Brief on the need for law firms to 'lead the charge' against sexual harassment (subscription required)

MPs claim law & accountancy firms are 'fudging the numbers' when it comes to gender pay gap reporting – in The Times Brief(subscription required)

Human Rights Committee member and head of casework at Liberty Emma Norton spoke with Marie Claire magazine as part of their International Women's Day coverage

Catherine Calder, joint chief executive of Serjeants' Inn Chambers, writes on International Women's Day for the Law Society Gazette


Justice secretary delays review into civil legal aid cuts

The Times Brief, Law Society Gazette

A review of legal aid cuts has been delayed and may not take place until the end of the year, David Gauke, the justice secretary, told MPs yesterday.

The review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo) was promised by Gauke's predecessor, David Lidington, and had been scheduled to conclude by the summer.

However, at Gauke's first appearance before the House of Commons justice committee, Gauke said that the timetable was ambitious and insisted it was "more important to get this right" than to meet the deadline.

He did not give an estimate of when the work would be completed but said that he did not want it "slipping into next year".

Christina Blacklaws, vice-president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in the jurisdiction, said that "while getting the review right should be the priority" her organisation was "increasingly concerned the MoJ hasn't even got it underway yet".

Blacklaws said that the society would continue "campaigning for legal aid to be reintroduced for early legal advice to stop legal problems escalating unnecessarily and I hope a focus on this issue in the review will help inform future policy in this important area".

She claimed that the justice ministry had "control of a wealth of data not available to anyone else, so this should certainly also be included in the review, alongside stakeholder research".

Richard Miller, the Society's head of justice, said: 'As we outlined in our review, Justice Denied: LASPO Four Years On, the act has caused significant barriers to people faced with having to enforce and defend their rights, which need to be addressed urgently. The loss of early advice has been particularly significant in seeing people's problems worsen when they could have been nipped in the bud.

'We agree that new systems may change the nature of the advice and representation people need, but it will not change the fact that they need such advice and representation, in addition to any assistance they may need using new digital platforms. Any reforms to the system must prioritise the needs of those who have to rely on the justice system.'

Coverage in The Times Brief & The Law Society Gazette

Write to your MP as part of our Early Advice campaign


Police computer locks up suspects based on postcode

The Times

An algorithm used to help police make custody decisions has been altered amid concerns that it was discriminating unfairly based on postcodes.

The harm assessment risk tool (Hart) is being trialled by police in Durham for guidance on decisions such as whether suspects should be held in custody or released on bail. Its creators stress that the ultimate decision remains with the officer in charge.

The tool, which was developed by the Durham force and academics at Cambridge University, uses data from 104,000 people arrested and processed in the city's custody suites over five years. "Predictor values" include a suspect's offending history, age, gender and location, but not ethnicity.

However, a draft academic paper from the algorithm's creators published online last year and highlighted by Wired magazine indicates that they were concerned about its use of postcode data. In the report, the creators said that postcodes could be indicators of deprivation and the variable risked creating "a kind of feedback loop" by causing police to focus on offenders from the highest-risk areas.

After Hart was announced, Richard Atkinson, a member of the criminal law committee of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said: "This is a very dangerous step. By law, custody decisions must be made by human beings, taking complex circumstances into account but, in reality, custody sergeants will delegate responsibility to the algorithm."

Full story in The Times (subscription required)

Also worth a read:

Frances Gibb, legal editor at The Times, conducts a farewell interview with Lord Justice Jackson(subscription required)  

Employment tribunal claims double after scrapping of fees – The Times Brief has the story (subscription required) 

The Guardian's Owen Bowcott reports on the money (or lack thereof) raised by court closures and sales 

The BBC's coverage of the Indian Supreme Court's decision to allow 'living wills'


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