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Opinions of Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Columnist: Funke Adekoya

When will 'Milady' become an acceptable mode of address for female Judges?

This interesting and thought provoking article by learned Senior Advocate, Mrs Funke Adekoya, highlights the issue of gender discrimination in the legal profession, starting from how the females are addressed, whether Judges, Senior Advocates or Lawyers. She calls on our profession to acknowledge this fact and frontally address these issues, so that we women can collectively achieve our true potential in the profession

Background

As we celebrated International Women’s Day this year, I cast my mind back to the last glaring incident of gender inequity at the topmost echelons of the legal profession. On the 27th February, 2018, I sat in agony throughout the valedictory court session held in honour of the Honourable Justice Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, as she retired as a Justice of the Supreme Court. In fact, my agony started even before the court session. The invitation card was for the Honourable MR Justice Ogunbiyi, as was the program neatly laid out at the event. When her citation was read she was always referred to personally as Honourable MR Justice Ogunbiyi, even though the “she” pronoun was interspersed throughout the document. For example – “She obtained a diploma certificate in Law from Ahmadu Bello University in June 1971, before she later enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in Law from the same university in June 1975, and was Called to the Nigerian Bar in 1976, the same year she graduated from the Nigerian Law School”.

Contradictions

For me, these contradictory positions highlight the issues that women must confront in a legal profession which refers to the female members as “gentleman of the Bar”, based on some antiquated construct that “there are no ladies at the Bar”.

Presently in Nigeria, female Judges are all referred to as “My Lord”, while we female senior advocates are acknowledged by our male counterparts as “my brother silk”.

The surprise is that, our own female colleagues do not feel sufficiently emboldened to challenge the status quo. Female Judges are hesitant to be referred to as Milady or Your Ladyship, while female Senior Advocates unquestionably accept being referred to as ‘My Brother Silk’, as if being considered an ‘honorary male’ is itself an accolade.

The Practice in UK

Even though the concept of Justice is depicted as female in gender, our Judiciary has not taken cognisance of this in providing guidance to the profession. The website for the English Judiciary, gives guidance in this regard. It directs advocates to address female Judges as ‘My Lady’. The Inns of Court (similar to our Law School) gives similar guidance in its Practice Note, “How to address Judges and others”.

The country that we acquired the trappings and traditions of legal practice from, has acknowledged the existence of the female gender in the legal profession; we however, are still mired in the traditions of the past. In the not too distant past, there was an indication from our Supreme Court that all Lawyers were to be identified by the word “Esq” rather than Mr Miss or Mrs. A glimpse into English history however, indicates that Esquire is itself is suffix to identify a male of a higher social level. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, the title Esquire signified the status of a man who was below a knight, but above a gentleman. Over the centuries, the esquire title became common in the legal profession and is a throwback to the British practice, in which Barristers claimed the status “Esquire” and solicitors used the term “Gentleman”.

The Practice in Some Other African Countries

Across the continent, in Kenya, female Judges are referred to their official Judiciary website as ‘Lady Justice’. Female Judges who have attended the meetings of the International Association of Women Judges in the past, can confirm that the same appellation applies to female Judges in Tanzania and Uganda. So why are we different? One argument is that a Judge is a Judge, and gender is irrelevant; there is no need to acknowledge gender differences. My response to this argument is, ‘so why is there an association of women Judges?’ What are the issues that engage women Judges, to the exclusion of male Judges? With all due respect to Miladies, you cannot eat your cake and have it. Gender is either relevant to the judiciary, or it is not. If our women Judges insisted on having their gender acknowledged, either by reference to ‘Lady Justice’ or being addressed as Milady/Your Ladyship, it would be an encouragement to those of us lower down on the totem pole, for a push for similar acknowledgment of the presence of women in the profession.

Consequences of Lack of Recognition of Women in the Legal Profession

It is my humble opinion that the refusal of the legal profession to recognise and acknowledge gender diversity in the legal profession, has in many ways become a stumbling block to the advancement of women in private legal practice.

Leadership of the legal profession, both at an organisational and a practice level, is mainly in male hands. As a result, the departure from the profession of women who are hampered by nurturing and cultural obligations from fully contributing their quota in the realm of legal services, has never been fully quantified. Not having been quantified, it has not been addressed. Even without statistics though, it is obvious that a law firm that has spent time and money in training and equipping a young female associate, suffers an economic loss when workplace requirements means the associate cannot cope with raising a young child, while simultaneously being expected to meet client required deliverables. Rather than put in place a system that allows a nursing mother to balance her childcare needs with client requirements, most law firms opt to either not employ female Lawyers, or not expose them to challenging client assignments. Because “there are no ladies at the Bar”, many of the issues which directly impact upon the efficiency of women in the legal workplace, such as childcare needs and resumption /closing times in chambers, are neither acknowledged nor addressed. This is one of the reasons why there are so few female Senior Advocates of Nigeria. Child care obligations often make it extremely difficult for a woman during her child bearing years to take on the number of cases to conclusion, which the guidelines for selection require. Then again, the sole practitioner or five years partnership requirement, is another clog in a woman’s ambition to attain the rank. How many female advocates own their own law firms, or are partners in other firms? How does the sole proprietor/law firm partner requirement, advance the standing of an otherwise qualified candidate? How many of our male colleagues in leadership positions, have even thought of this?

Conclusion

The end result of this gender “annihilation”, is that our existence and thus, the contribution of women to the legal profession is denied. There are ladies at the Bar, and until the profession acknowledges this fact and frontally addresses those issues which hinder our advancement, we will never collectively achieve our true potential in the profession.

As we reminisce over the International Women’s Day 2021 celebrations, I choose to challenge gender annihilation in the Nigerian legal profession.

Mrs. Funke Adekoya, SAN

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