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Only 28 per cent of judges in India’s lower courts are women, and there’s no sign of change

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A new study says that there are few women judges in the lower judiciary, despite reservations in some states. 

Less than 28 per cent of judges in India’s lower courts are women, and the number decreases steadily in the higher levels of the judiciary. A new study, which examined 15,806 judges in the lower judiciary, found that only 4,409 of them were women.

“Through its findings, a stark picture emerges of the abysmal representation of women in the lower judiciary, and we see a nearly uniform trend of the proportion of women judges decreasing as one moves up levels of lower courts,” says a report titled ‘Tilting the scale: Gender imbalance in the lower judiciary’ by think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

The study, which provides a state-wise and district-wise breakup of lower judiciary, notes that most states have less than 40 per cent women judges in lower courts.

Only Sikkim, Goa and Meghalaya, have over 60 per cent women judges, but the total number of judges from all the states is just 103.

Senior advocate Rebecca John says the report shows that gender representations is very skewed in important areas like the subordinate judicary.

“Because we are skewed, our understanding of justice will always remain skewed…Unless there is a gender balance in the judiciary you will continue to have judgments, which in a sense, are not feminist judgments,” John says.

How effective are reservations for women?

When it comes to reservations for women judges in the lower judiciary, the results are mixed.

According to the study, states like Jharkhand, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Telangana, Bihar are among those which have reservations for women. But despite this, Bihar and Jharkhand continue to have few women in lower courts. Telangana, on the other hand, has over 40 per cent women judges.

John says these statistics only reflect that reservations amount to lip service by these state governments.

“So what is the point in that lip service? At the policy level you have failed completely, you have not given any attention to drawing out and encouraging women,” John said.

Discrimination in promotions?

There are three tiers of judges in lower courts – district judges, civil judges (senior division) and civil judges (junior division). The report says that a larger percentage of women judges are appointed to the post of civil judge (junior division).

For instance, in Madhya Pradesh the percentage of women who are civil judges (junior division) is 42.18 per cent, while only 13.65 per cent of the women are district judges.

“The data shows a near-uniform trend of the proportion of women judges decreasing as one moves up the tiers of the lower judiciary,” the report says.

The report attributes this to the bias women face when it comes to promotions. According to the report, women also find it harder to lobby for higher posts in the judiciary.

“Several prominent women lawyers, ranging from Indira Jaising to Meenakshi Arora, have spoken up about discrimination that women litigators encounter and an entrenched ‘old boys’ club mentality’ that makes it harder for women to lobby for judicial posts,” the study says.

However, advocate Vrinda Grover says she doesn’t believe that gender biases exist for promotions.

“You go up by seniority, as and when your term comes,” she says.

Fewer women joining the legal profession

The report also says that few women entering the legal profession might also explain the low number of judges. According to the report, only 10 per cent of advocates in the country are estimated to be women, and says it is due to women being wary of the legal profession.

“Sexual harassment and the lack of supportive infrastructure, from toilets to maternity leave, also contribute to a high attrition rate amongst women lawyers,” the report says.

Grover agrees, and says the legal profession is not perceived as a safe space or a profession for women.

“When young women join the judiciary, at least I can say that about Delhi, there have been instances of sexual harassment. They have to conduct a district court. That’s where the accused are produced, where there are lawyers of all kinds. There are serious issues of making the place gender safe,” she says.

Grover also believes the lack of toilets has been an issue for women lawyers.

“Women in the legal profession have trained their kidneys to not use the washroom an entire working day,” she says.

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