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Report confirms general sense of women leaving criminal law

A new report commissioned by the Criminal Lawyers' Association (CLA) confirms what many had been reporting anecdotally for years — that women are leaving criminal practice at a higher rate than men, Toronto criminal lawyer Breese Davies tells CBC News.

"The Retention of Women in the Private Practice of Criminal Law," a report released by the CLA and authored by a postdoctoral research fellow from Griffith University in Australia and a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Toronto, examined statistics from Legal Aid Ontario and the Law Society of Upper Canada. Researchers also set up focus groups and surveyed 225 female criminal lawyers in Ontario.

As CBC notes, the report found that women are leaving private criminal law practice for a number of reasons, including lack of financial support for maternity leave and being treated differently than their male peers by judges and court staff.

Only 22 per cent of those surveyed said they felt men and women were treated equally in the system.

"It's a systemic problem that needs to be addressed," says Davies, vice-president of the CLA.

Researchers found many women left criminal law after five years and few were still practising in the area after 10 years. 

As Davies explains: "… we never had any numbers to determine whether or not our impressions were real.

Davies went on to say that she was most shocked by the proportion of women who left practice. Of the 47 women who started their careers in criminal law in 1996, only 13 were still in practice in 2014. And of the 50 women who started their careers in 2000, like Davies herself, only 22 are left.

The study found that women were ten times more likely to give up defence practice for government jobs or to become Crown prosecutors — positions that have guaranteed regular hours and benefits, such as maternity leave.

As Davies tells CBC News, it is important that the practice of criminal law reflects the community and legal profession.

"Diversity matters," she says. "We need diverse perspectives to make sure the law develops in step with social values. You do not want a group of homogenous people designing and developing laws."

The report makes a number of recommendations on how to resolve some of the issues women criminal lawyers face, including creating mentorship programs involving senior female lawyers, developing education programs and sensitivity training for judges and other court staff, greater support for maternity leaves and increasing the number of female judges.

"There's a lot to be done. These are pretty ambitious recommendations that touch a lot of areas of the criminal justice system," Davies says in the article, adding that she hopes to reassess the system in five years.

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