The debate on representation – Hindustan Times

CJI Ramana recently said that he would prefer at least 50% representation of women in the judiciary at all levels. Higher numbers and greater visibility of women in courts can reduce inherent systemic blindness to questions of gender. It can open the door for alternative, inclusive legal perspectives and interpretations.

By HT Editorial

PUBLISHED ON SEP 05, 2021 07:25 PM IST

Lamenting the inadequate number of women judges in courts across India, the Chief Justice of India (CJI), NV Ramana, on Saturday, said that he would prefer at least 50% representation of women in the judiciary at all levels. The CJI acknowledged that it was only with “great difficulty” that the Supreme Court (SC) had achieved a “mere” 11% representation of women on the bench, and said that the issue of representation of women must be “highlighted and deliberated” upon. Justice Ramana’s comments have highlighted a serious, structural lacunae in India’s legal system — the under-representation of women on the bench.

Out of the sanctioned strength of 34 judges, the SC has four women judges — Justices Indira Banerjee, Hima Kohli, BV Nagarathna and Bela M Trivedi, three of whom were elevated only last week. This is the highest-ever number of women judges in the SC’s history, with Justice Nagarathna in line to become the first woman CJI in 2027. But the story of incremental inclusion itself is a testimony to the history and reality of exclusion. According to government data, out of 677 sitting judges in both the SC and high courts, only 81 are women, a disappointing 12%. While there is greater gender representation at the lower levels of the judiciary, there is a near uniform trend of the proportion of women judges decreasing as one moves up the tiers of the court, says a 2020 report by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. This is due to a range of reasons. Women have to negotiate multiple obligations; it is harder to meet the minimum criteria of seven years of continuous practice to be eligible to be a district judge; fewer women are in litigation, reducing the pool from which women judges can be selected; and, perhaps most import-antly, the collegium system suffers from inherent biases, for progression in the legal profession is as much a product of old, often all-male, networks, as in other areas.

To be sure, there is no evidence to suggest that only women judges are likely to give gender-sensitive judgments. But higher numbers and greater visibility of women in courts can reduce inherent systemic blindness to questions of gender. It can give women the necessary confidence to seek justice and enforce their rights through the courts. It can open the door for alternative, inclusive legal perspectives and interpretations. And it will enhance the legitimacy of the judiciary, for inclusion creates a wider sense of ownership in the wider community. Beyond gender, this holds true in the case of other marginalised segments too, whose representation must increase. CJI Ramana has kicked off an important debate.

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