For some people, gender imbalance is hard to grasp. In theory, there’s a lot of conversation about women getting “more opportunities than before” in almost every field. But take a look at our justice system and you would realise that even the lower judiciary is not free of the gross imbalance in the number of men and women judges.
A recent research by Vidhi legal policy, studied the proportion of women judges to men in the lower judiciary and broke its findings down by state and district. The results paint a troubling picture: women comprise an abysmally low 28% lower court judges in India.
In the south, apart from Telangana and Puducherry, no other state has over 40% judges in the lower judiciary. The lowest performing states – Bihar and Jharkhand, have only 11% and 14% women judges respectively. In only three of the smallest states – Goa, Meghalaya, and Sikkim – does the percentage of women judges rise above the halfway mark with the collective total of only 103 women judges.
The report also breaks down the stats further into district and state-wise numbers. And also gives some possible reasons behind this gender imbalance.
Why is it important to have women in the judiciary?
The report argues that it is the presence of women judges is important because of several reasons.
- It provides decision making power to sections of the society which were disenfranchised before.
- A diverse bench is essential for a fair and impartial judiciary.
- A diversity of viewpoints makes courts more representative and democratically legitimate, and enables them to understand the implications of their rulings on the real world.
- Inclusion of women judges allows for other women aspiring for a career in law to access mentorship.
- It allows women seeking justice to face less stigma, especially when reporting violence and abuse.
Despite these reasons, the researchers note that women’s representation in all of judiciary, is in a sorry state. For instance, the Supreme Court has only ever had six women judges. And India’s 24 High Courts have only a little over 10% of women judges.
“The District Courts and the courts below them comprise the ‘lower’ or ‘subordinate’ judiciary. These courts lie under the administrative control of High Courts. Each judicial district in India has one District Court, below which lie civil and criminal courts of original jurisdiction,” the study notes, and finds that 71% judges in the lower judiciary across India are male.
Abysmally low number of women in lower judiciary
The southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana had 37% and 44% women judges respectively. Meanwhile Kerala had 67% and Karnataka, 70% judges who were men. Tamil Nadu had 607 and 357 male and female judges respectively, not including 12 judges whose information was unavailable.
The smaller states, Goa, Meghalaya and Sikkim, fared relatively well with 66% (29), 74% (31) and 65% (11) judges who were women – 103 in total.
The report suggests that breaking down data into these numbers can help zero in on factors which affect gender composition and may help policy makers.
Researchers also note that unlike the higher judiciary, some states have provided a quota for women in the lower judiciary, such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana. The quota ranges between 30% and 35% and women are appointed to these positions through direct recruitment.
Why are there so few women in the judiciary?
I. Biases in promotion process
One of the reasons why women are there are so few women in the lower judiciary, and also higher judiciary, is because of the low numbers of the previous years.
“If there were fewer female Civil Judges (Junior Division) in 1995, for instance, than now, fewer women judges would currently occupy higher posts in the lower judiciary, since higher posts are mostly filled through promotion from Civil Judges (Junior Division),” the study explains.
It also points to potential bias in promotional processes. “Given that men and women are equally meritorious, in the absence of discrimination, one would assume that the proportion of women judges will remain the same from the lowest to the higher tiers, for any given batch of judicial officers. While the historical data required to assess this is not readily available, several women judges and lawyers have reported discrimination in appointment and promotions.”
To demonstrate, here’s are some tables from the study which shows how the number of women judges decreases as one moves higher up in the judiciary.
II. The number game
Another interesting correlation drawn is that the numbers depend on how many women appear for judicial exams, which is linked to how many graduate as lawyers, which in turn depends on the number of women who choose to study law. This is further taken down to the number of women able to complete primary and secondary education, and ultimately, the relationship with the sex ratio in the state or district.
However, this is not a fool proof chain. For instance, while the study found a “moderate correlation of 0.44 between sex ratio and the representation of women in the lower judiciary”, there were also exceptions. “Although Kerala has the best sex ratio amongst all states, only 33% of women are part of its lower judiciary. States such as Punjab, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, have a lower sex ratio than Kerala but have a higher representation of women judges in lower courts,” the study points out.
While there is lack of quantifiable data in this regard, a number of lawyers – from Indira Jaising to Meenakshi Arora – have talked about discrimination meted out to women litigators. They have also spoken about the pervasive ‘old boys’ club mentality, which makes it harder for women to attain judicial positions.
These biases are also found in clients, as well as infrastructure and employment benefits for women in judiciary.
Incentives and work environments provided to women in the judiciary are also important factors.
“Sexual harassment and the lack of supportive infrastructure, from toilets to maternity leave, also contribute to a high attrition rate amongst women lawyers, with many preferring to join the corporate sector instead. All these factors come together to result in disproportionately low women bar appointees to the bench. For instance, in its 68 years of existence, the Supreme Court has only seen one woman elevated from the bar to the bench, as recently as January 2018,” researchers say.
Further, women who do make it to the judiciary tend to be judged more harshly. The study quotes an unnamed retired woman Supreme Court judge who said that her judgments were accepted only when they were backed by a larger bench. Another woman judge said that a male judge would always question her inference on issues.
A silver lining
Emphasizing the need for more rigorous data collection to address the issue, the study ends on a positive note. It points out some recent developments which seem to indicate that the tide may be turning, slowly. “In 2017, for the first time, all four High Courts of Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were headed by women Chief Justices,” it says.
Many leaders and members of judiciary have also been voicing the need for equitable gender representation in the judiciary. For instance, President Ram Nath Kovind recently acknowledged this gender imbalance and in his speech on National Law Day, and urged political leaders to allocate quotas for women in the judiciary.
Note: Percentages have been rounded off to the nearest decimal point.)
The gender of 1% (153) judges was unknown, and Arunachal Pradesh and Lakshadweep were excluded from the study due to lack of availability of data.