Gender Equality

A centenary of women practising law in India, but gender equality is still a distant goal 

After breaking the glass ceiling by recognising a woman’s right to practise law in 1923, it is time India takes a step forward in the digital realm by setting up virtual courts to erase the hamartia in the judicial system, associated with the problems that women lawyers face even today. 

RECENTLY, I watched a legal drama series, The Trial (2023), on the over-the-top (OTT) platform Disney+ Hotstar.

The series is an adaptation of the American legal and political drama The Good Wife (2009) by Robert King and Michelle King.

I completed the entire series over the weekend, not because it had an extraordinary storyline, but because it underscores some real-life issues faced by women who practise law, or women-in-law.

I had been thinking about these issues faced by women for a long time, but The Trial proved to be just the stimulus I needed to pen down an article.

Symbolic victory

Indian women were granted the right to engage in legal practice and serve as professional lawyers in courts as a result of the passage of The Legal Practitioners (Women) Act, 1923.

The Act lifted restrictions on women practising law by overruling the judgments given by a five-judge Bench of the Calcutta High Court in In Re: Regina Guha (1916) and a three-judge Bench of the Patna High Court in the Sudhansu Bala Hazra case (1921), whose rejection of enrolment of women who wished to practise law was found to be discriminatory only on the basis of sex.

Women constitute only 15 percent of the enrolled lawyers in India and the exact data on how many of them are still continuing with their legal practice is unclear, but it is evident that many women quit the profession because of a lack of work-life balance.

The irony is that an exact century has passed, but we are still in need of a discourse on the empowerment of women-in-law.

In spite of opting to pursue higher education in law, women continue to struggle to make a career in law. As a result, many of them drop out, creating a considerable gender gap in the profession.

As reported by India Today in 2022, women constitute only 15 percent of the enrolled lawyers in India.

Generally speaking, women do not feel supported in their legal practice. The lack of work–life balance is largely an outcome of lack of institutional support for women.

A majority of women lawyers drop out of law practice in the middle of their careers. In a survey undertaken by Reuters (2022), it was found that 60 percent of women lawyers leave practice in the age group of 35–55, i.e., the prime time of their career.

Around 82 percent women lawyers surveyed stated the lack of work–life balance as the prime reason for quitting the profession.

The advent of virtual courts is bringing about a transformative shift in the global legal landscape. Virtual courts can help women lawyers achieve work–life balance.

Paving a digital future

Digital platforms have revolutionised the way justice is administered, offering convenience, efficiency and accessibility. The impact of virtual courts extends much beyond merely streamlining legal proceedings.

These platforms have the potential to significantly empower women, including those in the legal profession. Virtual courts can become a catalyst for gender equality, promoting inclusivity, diversity and advancement opportunities for women-in-law.

Some of the significant advantages of virtual courts are enumerated below.

Breaking geographical barriers

One of the most significant advantages of virtual courts is their capacity to transcend geographical limitations.

Previously, women practising law in remote or conservative regions faced considerable challenges, often being excluded from mainstream legal practice.

Virtual courts can become a catalyst for gender equality, promoting inclusivity, diversity, and advancement opportunities for women-in-law.

Virtual courts enable these women to participate in hearings and trials from the comfort of their own space, eliminating the need for arduous travel or compromising their safety.

By breaking these barriers, virtual courts create a level playing field for women-in-law, enabling them to contribute their expertise regardless of their physical location.

Enhancing work-life balance

The traditional legal system has long been known for its demanding and rigid schedules, making it difficult for women to balance professional aspirations with personal responsibilities.

Virtual courts offer flexibility, allowing women lawyers to manage their time more efficiently.

This enhanced work–life balance can be particularly advantageous for those juggling between familial obligations and professional commitments, thus preventing talented women from abandoning their legal careers due to perceived conflicts between work and family life.

Reducing gender bias

Virtual courts can help alleviate gender biases that may arise in physical courtrooms.

In a virtual setting, participants interact primarily through audio and video, minimising preconceived notions based on appearance or gender.

This reduced emphasis on physical presence may contribute to fairer judgments, ensuring that women-in-law are evaluated solely on their legal prowess, and not on stereotypes or preconceptions.

Combating harassment and discrimination

Regrettably, the legal profession has not been immune to instances of harassment and discrimination against women.

Virtual courts can act as a safeguard against such incidents, as they provide a layer of anonymity and distance between participants.

Women lawyers may feel more secure and protected when engaging in legal proceedings through digital platforms, encouraging them to assert their rights and perspectives without fear of retribution.

Facilitating access to justice

For many women, especially those from marginalised backgrounds, access to justice has been a daunting task.

Physical barriers such as transportation costs, child care, or societal norms have hindered their ability to engage with the legal system.

Virtual courts offer an affordable and efficient alternative, ensuring that women from all walks of life can seek justice and legal recourse without significant obstacles.

Virtual courts are more than just a technological advancement. They represent a pathway to empowerment and gender equality within the legal profession.

By breaking geographical barriers, enhancing work-life balance, reducing gender bias, combating harassment, and facilitating access to justice, virtual courts lay the foundation for a more inclusive and diverse legal landscape.

By breaking geographical barriers, enhancing work–life balance, reducing gender bias, combating harassment and facilitating access to justice, virtual courts lay the foundation for a more inclusive and diverse legal landscape.

Policymakers, legal institutions and legal professionals must collaborate to fully harness the potential of virtual courts in empowering women-in-law and ensure equal opportunities and support mechanisms are in place.

Embracing this transformation will not only benefit women but will enrich the legal profession with diverse perspectives and talent, ultimately leading to a more just and equitable society.

The Leaflet