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Judge Ruth McColl warns gains on gender threatened by about-face on diversity

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Michaela Whitbourn

Women on the bench: Senior NSW judge Ruth McColl.

Women on the bench: Senior NSW judge Ruth McColl. Photo: Brendan Esposito

A senior NSW judge has warned there are ''worrying signs'' the Abbott government is winding back measures to promote greater gender diversity on the bench and called for vigilance to ensure hard-won advancements for female lawyers are not lost.

Ruth McColl, who has served on the Court of Appeal for more than a decade, said changes introduced by the former Labor government to improve the transparency of the appointment process for federal judges appeared to have been scrapped by the Coalition.

''The aim of the process was to ensure the evolution of the federal judiciary into one that better reflected the diversity of the Australian community,'' Justice McColl said in a speech in Sydney on Thursday night.

''That position has now changed. According to the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department website as at 22 February, 2014: 'There are no current judicial appointment processes' for any of the federal courts. Read what you like into that rather Delphic statement.''

In 2008, the Rudd government introduced a system for appointing judges to the federal, family and federal circuit courts. Instead of the traditional approach, which involved ''informal consultation'' by the attorney-general and was open to claims of political cronyism, positions were advertised.

An advisory panel, which included the head of the relevant court, a retired judge and a senior bureaucrat from the Attorney-General's Department, considered expressions of interest, conducted interviews and made recommendations to the attorney-general.

Justice McColl, the first female president of the NSW Bar Association, said there was an ''available inference'' that the current system for appointing federal judges had ''reverted to … the traditional method''.

''This could be a worrying sign,'' she said. ''The adoption of a more formal process of judicial appointment … has been hard won. Perhaps it is part of the reason the percentage of women on the bench grew from 8.77 per cent in 1996 to 33.53 per cent last year.''

Justice McColl said there were ''other worrying signs'', including that the Coalition was planning next month to ''lift the gender diversity reporting requirements of companies from those with more than 100 employees to those with 1000 or more staff''.

''These are clearly early days in terms of what I have described as 'worrying signs','' she said. ''But they are sufficient to remind us that we need to be vigilant to ensure that there is no backsliding in womens' hard-won advancement in the law.''

There are now 340 female judges across Australia, comprising 33.5 per cent of the judiciary. This is above the global average of 27 per cent.

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