Miriam Kresivo, QC
March 08, 2018

It is just over 25 years since the Law Society published its influential report, “Gender Equality in the Justice System.” The report focused on gender bias in the justice system and legal profession, generally, and it considered changes that different institutions in the justice system should make. As we mark International Women’s Day, it is worth pausing to take stock of the progress the Law Society has made to address gender bias, and realize just how far we’ve come. 

The 1992 report of the Gender Bias Committee was eighteen months in the making and included more than 300 recommendations. At the annual general meeting prior to its release, committee chair Ted Hughes, QC, reported to the Benchers that the committee had found that “gender bias is extensive in the legal and justice systems of this province,” and that “although the laws are for the most part gender neutral, the application of many of those laws creates a situation of systemic bias against women.” The report found that women faced barriers to participation in the profession, including sexual harassment, inadequate accommodation of family responsibilities, discrimination in hiring and promotion, and gender-driven restrictions on work opportunities. 

The report’s recommendations address eight groups: the Law Society and its members, the judiciary, legal educators, the Canadian Bar Association, the federal government, the provincial government, the Legal Services Society, and RCMP and municipal police forces. 

The Law Society’s response to the report was immediate. At the September 1992 meeting at which it was presented, the Benchers voted to amend the Professional Conduct Handbook by adding a rule to explicitly prohibit discrimination and sexual harassment as unprofessional conduct. In response to the report’s recommendations, the Law Society also introduced a non-practising membership category with a lower fee, as well as a 50-per-cent reduction in liability insurance for members in part-time practice. Other measures instigated by the report included ensuring that PLTC accommodates students who are pregnant or primary caregivers to children, and a number of measures aimed at making it easier for women who leave the profession for family responsibilities to return to practice. 

Efforts to redress gender imbalance within the Law Society are bearing fruit. In the 1990s, membership of Law Society committees, which carry out many of the regulatory functions and assist with policy development, was decidedly male-dominated. Today, committee membership is almost evenly split between men and women. Last year’s Bencher elections tipped the gender balance, so that for the first time more women than men have seats at the Bencher table. Karen Nordlinger, QC, Trudi Brown, QC, Anna Fung, QC, and Jan Lindsay, QC, have each served a term as president since the report, and my own term will be followed by Nancy Merrill, QC, at the helm. The Law Society has also been working diligently to redress gender inequality through such programs and initiatives as the Justicia program and the Law Society Diversity and Inclusion Award. 

How these efforts have made an impact on the legal profession and justice system as a whole continues to be of interest to the Law Society. In order to understand how far we have come together, as well as what more to do, our Equity and Diversity Committee is reviewing data on membership and participation rates of women in the profession and justice system. It is important work, and I am eager about what we will learn. But, for this International Women’s Day, I think it is worth celebrating what we have begun to achieve.