Women Judges on Final Courts

The session began with an illuminating conversation between President-Elect of the IAWJ Hon Justice Susan Glazebrook and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women Hon. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. The main theme that emerged from the conversation was the importance of a gender-sensitive judiciary.  

The Executive Director began by commenting that there is sometimes a disconnect between what is taught at law schools and the reality in the field. With prevailing social norms in some communities and current legal education, many graduating from law school may not understand the significant issues women face in obtaining equality. In this respect, the Executive Director emphasised that women judges have a responsibility to monitor legal education and ensure these topics are covered, so that future judges, whether men or women, are committed to addressing these injustices. Education does not stop at law schools, either: the Executive Director emphasised the importance of messages of gender equality being reinforced throughout the judicial hierarchy. The President-Elect noted the IAWJ’s commitment to these issues.

The Executive Director also commented on the pleasing legislative reforms in the last two decades to ensure that women have greater legal recognition of their rights. For instance, violence against women has been criminalised in more countries. However, she stressed that legislation by itself is not enough. Again, it is necessary to have judges that understand these issues so that the laws are interpreted and applied to have full effect. Otherwise, good laws may be sacrificed in favour of contrary dominant social norms and cultural practices. Women judges can make a fundamental contribution to the way that society thinks and acts.

Following this conversation, we were privileged to go on a quick trot around the world and hear from six panellists who have either served or are serving as judges on final courts.

Our first panellist, Hon Chief Justice Meaza Ashenafi, is the first woman to hold office as the President of the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia. She did not have a conventional path to senior judicial office. While being appointed as a judge early, she subsequently took on a number of non-judicial roles before returning to the senior judiciary. These included serving as a legal adviser on the Ethiopian Constitution Commission and founding the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, where she served as the Executive Directress for eight years. As such, she described herself as somewhat of a judicial “outsider”, although reflected that this allowed her to bring a fresh pair of eyes to reform. In particular, the leadership skills that she gained from these other experiences have been instrumental in her role as a judicial administrator.

The Chief Justice noted that judicial administration is a challenge anywhere in the world, but particularly in a country like Ethiopia which is in transition and faces peace and security problems. Although there is still work to be done, current reforms to strengthen judicial independence, implement accountability mechanisms to ensure judicial integrity and increase judicial diversity mean that Ethiopia is on the right track.

Speaking from Thailand was Hon. Sutatip Yuthayotin, who is a Judge of the Office of the President of the Supreme Court. The Judge informed of us of the promising increase in the rate of appointment of women to the Thai judiciary. In fact, even though only one third of judges in Thailand are women, over the last few years more women than men have been appointed. Thailand has also had its first ever woman president of the Supreme Court, who is to be succeeded by another woman president.

An interesting anecdote from the Judge’s contribution was about how individual women judges can break down stereotypes about how women will perform the role. She shared that previously a male colleague had said that he did not think that women could perform well in judicial office. However, when he saw the quality of her work, he acknowledged that he was wrong. Incorrect perceptions that women are too emotional and lack reasoning skills persist, but women judges – especially those on final courts – must work to correct these false perceptions and encourage other women to achieve their maximum career potential.

Next we travelled to Mexico, where we heard from two Judges of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation: Hon Yasmín Esquivel-Mossa and Hon Norma Lucía Piña Hernández. Justice Esquivel-Mossa acknowledged the privileged position that women judges have as decision makers, meaning that they must strive to rewrite the history of women through their “weapon”, which is the law. Diversity of the judiciary is important to bring a range of perspectives: without women on the judiciary we cannot get comprehensive resolutions to problems that are fair to all genders. She also broadened her contribution by noting that because women have experienced disadvantage, they should use this experience to assist others who experience discrimination.

Justice Hernández echoed the comments of her colleague. She particularly acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 and how it has reduced access to justice, particularly for women. She also stressed that women judges need to rethink their role as decision-makers in the reconstruction from the pandemic. While she was confident that judges could adapt to the new reality, community will play a significant role. To that end, Justice Hernández commented on the huge value and solidarity provided by the international network of judges that is IAWJ.

From our close neighbours, Australia, we heard from the recently retired Hon Virginia Bell, who was the fourth woman justice on their final court. While missing her work, Justice Bell commented that Australia’s age limit for judges makes good sense. In particular, because final courts in common law systems “make” law, there are good reasons for having renewal in the relatively small number of people who exercise this power. While disagreeing that men and women necessarily have different conceptions of justice, she celebrated the growing representation of women in Australia’s senior judiciary. A particularly special experience in her career was her role swearing in Australia’s first woman Chief Justice, Susan Kiefel.

Finally, from Nigeria was Hon Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun, a Justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court. She shared how women in Nigeria are breaking down barriers: today there is hardly any profession that is considered the sole preserve of men. Of course, this does not mean that her journey has been easy. At the time of her appointment as a High Court Judge in 1996, women were the exception rather than the norm. This in turn meant that there were very few women in the pool from which to select judges for the appellate courts. However, in 2005 Nigeria appointed its first woman Supreme Court Judge, Hon Aloma Mariam Mukhtar. Justice Kekere-Ekun explained that Justice Mukhtar served proficiently on the Court of Appeal for 18 years but was never promoted due to the unspoken rule that the Supreme Court was only for men. But she remained undeterred, and through her tenacious and diligent work Justice Mukhtar broke this glass ceiling in 2005. Since then, more women have followed her there, including Justice Kekere-Ekun.

Justice Kekere-Ekun also reflected on the importance of diversity in not just strengthening the performance of the courts, but in enhancing public confidence in them. This also enhances public confidence in other institutions of the polity.  

As noted by the moderator of the session, Hon Justice Christine French of the New Zealand Court of Appeal, these outstanding contributions from Judges across the world showed how many issues are common between countries. There is much to be learned from one another, which shows the immense value of an organisation such as IAWJ.

We were particularly impressed by the commitment all these Judges had to paving the way for others, given the no doubt huge workload that they already carry in their judicial functions. This commitment is of vital importance: after all, the presence of women in important decision-making places is, as Justice Esquivel-Mossa remarked, “not a question of power but a question of justice”.  

Reported by Taz Haradasa and Maddy Nash