TORONTO – A Toronto lawyer is leading the charge to scrap a small room at an Ontario courthouse where so-called “lady barristers” can change into their robes and have it replaced with a unisex space.
Breanna Needham has launched an online petition flagging the discrepancy between the women’s robing room at the Osgoode Hall courthouse, which is labelled “lady barristers” and holds 12 lockers, and the men’s, which has close to 70.
She said women make up roughly half of practising lawyers in Ontario and should be given as much space, literally and figuratively.
The robing rooms also serve as gathering places where lawyers network and talk about their work, and shutting women out of those discussions excludes them from mentoring, informal negotiations and other potentially career-advancing connections, she said.
“There’s a barrier here and it has an effect,” she said.
For many lawyers, appearing at Osgoode Hall – which hosts the province’s appeal court – is a career highlight, and all should be able to access it equally, she said.
Lawyers are required to wear black, flowy robes to appear in Superior Court and at the Ontario Court of Appeal, and the Law Society of Ontario says it is “generally bad form” to wear robes outside the courthouse.
A unisex space would include private rooms for those needing to make full wardrobe changes or who require privacy, and a common lounge or work area, Needham said.
Robing rooms vary greatly across the province’s courthouses, but some already have a unisex common area, she said, including a newly expanded facility in Brampton, Ont. A unisex space would also better accommodate non-binary lawyers, she said.
The issue has emerged periodically and Needham said she believed it was time to do something about it. The response to her call has been encouraging, she said.
As of Tuesday morning, the petition had close to 600 signatures.
“Let’s eliminate systemic inequality in its obvious forms. It’s definitely time for a shared and equal space for all lawyers,” one person commented on the petition.
“As a woman in law, I agree that this change is long overdue,” another wrote.
A spokesperson for the Law Society of Ontario, which regulates the profession in the province, said it would consider the petition’s request.
“We appreciate the concerns outlined in the petition about the women’s robing room at Osgoode Hall and we are looking into options,” Susan Tonkin said in an email. “We’ll provide an update as soon as we are able.”
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