Female legal practitioners feel discriminated against

November 8th, 2019
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By Kgomotso Ramotsho

A group of female legal practitioners referring to themselves as the Women’s Legal Circle Group, wrote a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa concerning lack of representation of female Silks or senior legal practitioners on the counsel briefed to prosecute state capture crimes. In the letter, the group state that they have written the letter with serious intention to be heard and, with the determination to shed the veil of invisibility on them.

The group said that President Ramaphosa twice pledged to uphold the Constitution and they intend to hold him to that pledge. In their letter they added that as female legal practitioners they have listened to the assurances that the empowerment of women is a ‘national priority’. The letter stated that female legal practitioners have been encouraged by the drive to transform the judiciary so that the many capable female legal practitioners in South Africa (SA) can take their rightful place on the judiciary and in that way contribute to relieving the millions of women of the shackles of discrimination and be representative of the demographics of SA’s rainbow nation.

The letter further stated that worldwide, the legal profession is dominated by male legal practitioners, the Women’s Legal Circle Group said it had hoped that SA was different. The Women’s Legal Circle Group pointed out that the evidence leaders at the Mokgoro Commission of Inquiry, the arbitration inquiry into the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State was reassuring. The group noted that they did not doubt that male senior counsels are eminently qualified and are deserving of their positions and have great respect for their legal acumen. But it is astonishing that not a single female senior counsel or legal practitioner met the criteria for the selection for the counsel briefed to prosecute state capture crimes.

The group questioned what set apart the qualification and forensic investigative skills of the four male Silks appointed to prosecute the state capture crimes. They pointed out that this appointment sends a message that female Silks are lacking. The group further questioned the years of experience required for a female legal practitioner before they can be considered for state work. The group said it does not accept the excuse that the four male Silks appointed agreed to offer their services at a reduced fee as it is a feeble attempt at justifying the exclusion of female legal practitioners.

The letter further went on to state that female legal practitioners endure chronic disadvantages compared to their male counterparts, leveraging limited access to economic resources and opportunities.  The letter added that female legal practitioners suffer various forms of gender-based discrimination. In the letter, the group used briefing patterns as a form of unconscious bias as they perpetuate the exclusion of female legal practitioners from access, and control over resources.

The letter stated that female legal practitioners, are leaving private practice to join multi-national firms, but not by desire but because the largest consumer of legal services has no faith in their ability and the male dominated law firms wish to preserve the existence of the ‘old boys club’. The letter noted that SA prides itself with laws and policies, which enshrine the principle of equality and non-discrimination. Polices that guarantee a range of economic, social and cultural rights for women, however, lack of policy enforcement reinforces discrimination against women in the legal profession and perpetuates the inequality in the economic sphere.

The Women’s Legal Circle Group stated in the letter that the time has come for the Minister of Justice to commit to a sustainable inclusive gender parity framework. ‘We require a firm undertaking from you, Mr President that women will not be excluded henceforth from state briefs. We believe that the time has arrived for an urgent dialogue with you and the honourable Minister of Justice,’ the letter stated.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.