Tuesday 25 June 2019

Women may now hold the top legal roles - but a male majority still limits our choices

Attorney General Máire Whelan and Chief Justice Susan Denham are among the women at the top of the country’s public legal system. Photo: Collins
Attorney General Máire Whelan and Chief Justice Susan Denham are among the women at the top of the country’s public legal system. Photo: Collins
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

The complainant will never admit that she consented, and counsel must seek to show, that at the time of the offence, her character and behaviour were such that she would be likely to have consented, or that she has invented the evidence which she is giving."

This is not a quotation from a 19th-century novel. These are the words of an Irish Supreme Court judge in 1978.

At the time, courtroom evidence of a woman's 'sexual experience' was admissible in order to prove that her allegation of rape or sexual assault was unreliable.

For centuries, jurisprudence in this area has been predicated on a tacit belief that women cannot be trusted. Most of us would not remember there was a time when women were contemplated in that light. Because, of course, women - and Irish judges - had sex only after they were married.

I wonder what that judge would think if he was alive today? His boss would be the Chief Justice, Susan Denham. His paymaster would be the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald (albeit a 'caretaker paymaster'). The Attorney General, Máire Whelan, the chief law officer in the State, would advise the government on his decisions. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Claire Loftus, would bring challenging decisions before him. Chief Prosecution Solicitor Helena Kiely and Chief State Solicitor Eileen Creedon complete the Chiefs of State.

Back in 1978, it was rare to s ee a female barrister in the courtroom. The legal profession now attracts more women than men: 60-70pc of solicitors are female. Half of the Law Library's members are women.

That Supreme Court judge would have fallen off his bench on hearing that our Garda Commissioner was a woman - Nóirín O'Sullivan, the first woman to lead the force in its 92-year history.

Add to that a woman Chief State Pathologist, Professor Marie Cassidy, and several women as professors of law in our universities - including the Dean of Law at UCC and at King's Inns - well, he might think he had drunk far too much port after dinner and was having a nightmare.

However, despite the extraordinary number of women in our top public service legal positions, we are far from being equal citizens. Much of that is due to the fact that government, rather than all of our elected representatives, has too much control in stemming law reform and too little input into real reform.

The two main political parties have adamantly resisted a major women's issue, that of reproductive choice. My personal opinion on the matter is irrelevant, but I do know that I have no right to adjudicate on another woman's life choice, nor should a majority male government continue to do so.

No amount of female representation in our legal system, our judiciary and our parliament has changed the fact that women are still mistrusted by male public representatives.

Irish women can be leaders in any profession, but when it comes to issues that directly affect us, we are ultimately controlled by a male majority.

Instead of enabling disadvantaged women, the last government's slashing of the lone-parent allowance was extraordinarily regressive - all the more disappointing that it was introduced by Labour TD Joan Burton.

Now, left to rear her children alone, a mother will not receive lone-parent support after her children reach the age of seven. According to the State, seven is OK to be home alone.

Forcing a mother out to work, most likely in a job that would pay less than childcare rates, will have a negative long-term impact, socially and economically.

Providing security in the form of a home, education, healthcare and resources to help lone mothers (or lone fathers) with children in disadvantaged situations is a smart economic move that will reduce crime and the cost of crime and drug addiction to society, the courts and the taxpayer.

Strangely, the success of the women mentioned above is not reflected in private practice. Perhaps this is because women fare better in the administrative structure of the public service, where childcare planning may be more supported.

Private law firms demand all-night meetings to get deals over the line, making childcare an unfeasibly difficult prospect for young women.

Supporting mothers with appropriate childcare, whether in the home or workplace, is the keystone of a better society.

Only one of the women mentioned above has been elected as a public representative. Her party (like all the others, large, small, new and obscure) still does not have a mandate to govern. It would be a triumph of civil rights if the election outcome resulted in a national consensus government that would properly reflect our vote.

I won't change my vote if another election is called. I don't care if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalesce, nor should Fianna Fáil keep repeating that its supporters did not vote for a coalition, the truth is that they did not vote for a Fianna Fáil majority.

The government we want is one that will legislate for a just and fair society, where children are cherished, and are not shamed by homelessness.

One hundred years on from the Proclamation, remember that: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally."

Irish Independent

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