Two Toronto lawyers say it’s time to retire the Lady Barristers robing room at Osgoode Hall in favour of a larger communal space that all lawyers using the courthouse on Queen Street West could access.
One says the sign itself, a relic from an earlier age, could be auctioned off, with the money going to support a scholarship for women in the legal profession.
A change.org petition calling for a unisex robing room at the historic building at 130 Queen St. W. has already garnered more than 500 signatures. Osgoode Hall houses the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Divisional Court of the Superior Court of Justice and Law Society of Upper Canada offices.
Fay Faraday and Breanna Needham told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning that Osgoode Hall has change rooms for male and female lawyers, but the one for men is spacious and has about 70 lockers, while the one for women is small and has only 12 lockers.
“I have been doing this for over a quarter of century and every time I go into court, I have to walk by that ridiculous sign for the Lady Barristers room, which, as I said in my post, is so two centuries ago. And it’s tiny,” said Faraday, a lawyer at Faraday Law, who has commented on the robing room on Twitter.
Lawyers network, strategize in robing rooms
Faraday said the robing rooms matter not only because they provide space for lawyers to change into legal robes before appearing in court, but also because they serve as spaces where lawyers network, strategize and mentor each other. Lawyers store clothing, such as coats and boots, in the lockers.
“I know about the disparity between the accommodations that we have and that the male lawyers have. But it’s not just about the space in which to change. It’s that the room, the robing room, is where lawyers, where they meet each other, where they strategize for cases, where they network, where there’s mentoring that happens.”
In the change room for women, she said: “You get in there and you get out as quickly you as can because it’s so small.”
Faraday said the disparity is glaring and an example of the inequality faced by women in the legal profession. She described the Lady Barristers room as “quaint” and “tiny.”
A 2015 article by Canadian Lawyer magazine described the change room for men as “opulent” with the feel of “a male locker room in an old-money golf and country club.”
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The change room for men reportedly has tables and chairs, while the change room for women has one small couch and a couple of benches that look like they are from a pool change room. If seven lawyers stand in the change room for women, they would take up 50 per cent of the space.
‘They’re just not inclusive’
Needham, who launched the petition and is a lawyer at Lax O’Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb, said she wanted to do something about the issue. It is talked about in private all the time, she added.
“These robing rooms, they’re just not inclusive. They don’t recognize the practice of litigation as it exists today. It’s not just about men versus women,” she said,.
“It’s about availability of this crucial space for informal networking and mentoring to all lawyers, regardless of their faith, background, whether they are men, women, non-binary individuals, LGBTQ+. We should all be able to engage in that. And that disparity starts early,” she said.
The petition notes that women and men make up roughly equal numbers in the legal profession.
“Women in law account for approximately 50% of practicing lawyers in Ontario — there is no basis upon which they should be allocated this much less than the men in anything in the profession, let alone space,” it reads.
For its part, the Law Society of Upper Canada has said it is looking into the situation.
“We appreciate the concerns outlined in the petition about the women’s robing room at Osgoode Hall and we are looking into options. We’ll provide an update as soon as we are able.”