Women's Day 2023: Only 3 per cent of Senior Advocates in the Supreme Court and High Courts are women

Looking beyond just the numbers, barriers that prevent women from excelling in the legal field continue to exist, as former women judges and senior lawyers reveal.
Women's Day 2023
Women's Day 2023

While Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud recently emphasised that the future of the legal profession belongs to women, the ground reality at present, particularly as regards the designation of Senior Advocates in the country, seems to be different.

Bar & Bench collected data on the number of women who have been conferred the 'Senior Advocate' gown by the Supreme Court and the High Courts so far. The information gathered indicates that the legal profession continues to be an 'old boys club', and that the CJI's statement seems to be a distant dream.

India has 3,149 Senior Advocates across the Supreme Court and all the High Courts. Out of this, a mere 3.4 per cent or 106 are women. This data was collected through various official sources including Registrars General of some High Courts, sitting High Court judges, websites of the Supreme Court and the High Courts and bar directories.

Looking beyond just the numbers, barriers that prevent women from excelling in the field continue to exist, as former women judges and senior lawyers reveal. According to them, this is a function of the patriarchy that continues to exist in the profession.

Let's take a closer look at statistics from the Supreme Court and the 25 High Courts in the country.

Supreme Court and Chartered High Courts

women's day 2023 SC
women's day 2023 SC

As per data available online, the Supreme Court has till date conferred the Senior designation to over 488 advocates, of which only 19 are women.

In what is perhaps a sign of the changing times, while a mere 4 women were designated from the inception of the apex court in 1950 till 2013, 15 women have been conferred the gown in the last 9 years.

The Chartered High Courts of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras also display a similar dearth of female Senior Advocates.

The Calcutta High Court has handed over gowns to only 4 women lawyers out of a total of 422.

The Bombay High Court, which has conferred senior designation to legal stalwarts like Ram Jethmalani, Fali Nariman and Soli Sorabjee, has only 8 women seniors, of which only four are actively practicing in Maharashtra.

The Madras High Court has only 10 women of the total 299 Senior Advocates.

Here's a look at a graphical representation of the numbers in other High Courts across the country.

Southern States

women's day 2023 SS
women's day 2023 SS

Northern States

women's day 2023 NS
women's day 2023 NS

Central States

women's day 2023 CS
women's day 2023 CS

North-eastern States

women's day 2023 NES
women's day 2023 NES

We also spoke to former women judges and lawyers who have paved the path for future generations of female lawyers, to elicit their views on the skewed representation of women as Senior Advocates.

By and large, they called for recognition of the competence of deserving women at the bar, and pointed out systemic outlooks that need to change in order to enable women to thrive in the legal profession.

Justice Indira Banerjee, former Supreme Court judge

Justice Indira Banerjee
Justice Indira Banerjee

Upon being informed about the data, Justice Indira Banerjee said it showed a clear 'gender imbalance' in the High Courts and also the Supreme Court.

"There is a patriarchal mindset and that is a reality," she underscored, while highlighting how women advocates have to give up their practice or take numerous breaks in their career owing to marriage, child care, maternity etc.

There is a conservative mindset that operates against women in the profession, Justice Banerjee said.

"For instance - a male lawyer can entertain his client and may be take the client out for a coffee but if a woman lawyer does so, she will be considered to be 'too fast.'"

She further pointed out that most High Courts have set a standard for designating seniors, which is same for both the genders. However, she is of the opinion that the standards for men cannot be applied for women.

There is a reluctance to give matters to women advocates, as generally women aren't aggressive enough as compared to men.

"There is a mind set operating against women and traditional thinking that how women should behave. They think women should always be polite, but I think everyone has to be polite, be it a man or a woman and there is no need for anyone to be unduly aggressive. I think men get away with being aggressive," she said.

Justice Banerjee explained how a married working woman has to balance her professional and personal life.

"I don't know if anyone could accept this concept of house-husband. If a husband is doing better, it is accepted in the society. But if a wife does better than the husband, that is not accepted and the husband here becomes a laughing stock. Just to ensure there is peace at home many women slip back," the judge highlighted.

"There are so many male judges, but no one asks them what their wives do. But if there is a female judge and her husband is not doing well, people will talk about him. Thus, I believe single and childless women do better in the profession, of course with some exceptions," Justice Banerjee said.

She cited the examples of former Calcutta High Court judges, Justices Ruma Pal and Moushami Bhattacharyya to drive home this point.

"When you have a child, there are expectations since you are the mother and you have to look after the child everyday. Then there is also something called as family support, which is difficult to get. There might be non-encouraging in-laws, who would not support a working daughter-in-law," she said.

Justice Banerjee, however, hoped that "things will change as many more women are taking up this profession and many more women are taking this profession very seriously."

Justice Sujata Manohar, former Supreme Court judge

Justice (Retd) Sujata Manohar
Justice (Retd) Sujata Manohar

Similar views were expressed by former Supreme Court judge and the first woman Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Justice Sujata Manohar. She underlined that the main problem is that women lawyers find it difficult to get work and even litigants are reluctant to engage a female lawyer.

"But fairly large number of women advocates can be seen arguing cases in courts today and some are even specialising in some specific laws. So I think the prejudice which has been there against women lawyers is going off slowly," the former judge said.

The patriarchal mindset prevalent in the process of designating Senior advocates, she said, is disappearing slowly, as there are increasing number of women lawyers.

"I am hopeful within a short timespan we will get more senior women. But the problem is not everyone and anyone can be conferred the senior gown. They will have to appear in important matters. So the solution is to get them more work and only then they will be getting the recognition. Otherwise the scenario will continue. It is kind of a vicious cycle," she opined.

Justice Mridula Bhatkar, former Bombay High Court judge

Justice Mridula Bhatkar
Justice Mridula Bhatkar bombaybar.com

Justice Mridula Bhatkar, formerly a judge of the Bombay High Court, emphasised on the need for women to introspect, because in this profession, there is cut-throat competition. Even male advocates find it difficult to stand and earn, she said.

"I don't deny that there is absolutely no patriarchy, but we need to fight it. Once a woman steps out, she has to face some or the other form of patriarchy. The requirement of this profession is very demanding. Family support is very, very important for a woman to progress in this profession. There would obviously be leg-pulling, anti woman-comments etc. But you need to fight back," the retired judge emphasised.

For the initial five to ten years in practice, women do not earn as much money as their male counterparts, Justice Bhatkar said.

"Women lawyers must argue more on interpreting laws, provisions of some laws etc. We do see that there are a sizeable number of female advocates have increased and they are more better in terms of academics but they lack in advocacy. Thus, they need to introspect on this count," she added.

Justice Sadhana Jadhav, former Bombay High Court judge

 Justice Sadhana Jadhav
Justice Sadhana Jadhav

Former Bombay High Court judge Justice Sadhana Jadhav said on the dearth of female Senior Advocates,

"There might be some patriarchal mindset but the point is women advocates must step ahead and apply for senior designation. During my tenure as a judge, I have seen very few women applying for the designation."

There are several women advocates eligible to get the gown, but they do not apply, she stated.

"In such a situation, the judges should in fact call upon such women advocates and appoint them directly. This will encourage more women to apply for the post," she opined.

Gayatri Singh, Senior Advocate, Bombay High Court

Senior Advocate Gayatri Singh
Senior Advocate Gayatri Singh

On the contrary, Senior Advocate Gayatri Singh believes that hundreds of women advocates apply for Senior designation, not just once, but twice, and yet their applications are rejected.

She further stressed that the 'patriarchal mindset' dominates the entire process of appointing Senior Advocates.

"They (male judges) think that women advocates are not capable of holding the Senior Advocate position. The patriarchal way of looking at women participating in judicial proceedings also affects the appointments. Male judges do not like straight forward, confident and articulate women. I can cite an instance wherein a very confident woman was arguing her matter in the Bombay High Court and a Senior Advocate was on the opposite side. He told her 'do not to talk to me in this fashion.' He basically humiliated her. I think at this stage, the bench must intervene in such situations," she opined.

Instead of interviewing women advocates only for five to ten minutes (as part of the designation process), Singh said that judges must look at the person and her arguments, reported judgments in her cases etc.

As someone who has been there and done that, Singh said that the main problem is the mindset that women advocates stop their practice once they get married. Pointing out the stigma attached to women lawyers arguing in court, she said,

"Even judges look down on female advocates. The arguments of women advocates are seemed to be shouting. In fact, male judges perceive women advocates in a wrong manner. They think women advocates shout and that they do not argue."

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