Applying equality to the silks system

Women, yet again, are not making the grade. Or so the latest list of newly appointed Queen's Counsels would have us believe. This year's crop of silks reveals the same old story – four women are successful out of 40 applicants, representing a one in 10 chance of success if you're a female.

Males, on the other hand, have a one in seven chance of a winning application. Little wonder women believe the odds are stacked against them. Little wonder they are slower in putting their applications forward than their male colleagues – despite the fact that 11.5 per cent of those called over 15 years ago are women, rising to 24 per cent of those of between 10 and 15 years call.

There are all kinds of good reasons, no doubt, to explain away women's failure to succeeed in this department. But because, like the selection process, they are all based on speculation and guesswork, it is impossible to give any type of scientific critique of what actually goes on.

The Kalisher report on the appointment of silks in 1994 ignored the findings of the 1992 TMS Without Prejudice report, which proved that the existing system of appointing Silks significantly disadvantaged women. One women barrister described the information gathering on candidates as the "most appalling system of male gossip".

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the selection process, it is perceived as being stacked against women and ethnic minorities. There is no doubt that the Lord Chancellor has taken some steps to encourage women to apply. However, the latest list of appointments would suggest that he has been unsuccessful.

It is now time to seriously address the issue, or, as barrister Barbara Hewson wrote in an article in The Lawyer on 13 February, the system of Silk selection could find itself falling foul of Community law in the form of the Equal Treatment Directive.