Balancing the gender scale of justice

Meet two female magistrates whose appointments have helped the NSW Local Court inch closer to gender parity

Since early British settlement in Australia, those in powerful positions – creating & adjudicating on the law, running national political agenda & making key corporate decisions –have traditionally been predominantly male. While striking the gender balance in many top jobs across industries continues to be a work in progress, the NSW Local Court is close to achieving gender parity in magistrates.

UOW Outlook Magazine spoke with two female alumni, Magistrate Melissa Humphreys (pictured left) and Magistrate Kirralee Perry (pictured right), who recently celebrated being sworn in as NSW Local Court magistrates. 

Tell us a little about your career since graduating from UOW.

KP: In my final four-week placement of my law degree, I did work experience at the Director of Public Prosecutions (DDP). I then obtained employment with them and stayed there until I was appointed as a magistrate. During my time at the DPP I appeared in the Local Court, District Court, Supreme Court and Children’s Court. I managed the Gosford Office of the DPP for a number of years before becoming a trial advocate in 2016 and then a crown prosecutor in 2018.

MH: During my degree I did a placement at Hargrave Chambers and was then offered a law clerk/research position with one of the barristers, which then grew to working for two different barristers in chambers. Following my graduation, I continued these roles until I was called to the Bar. I commenced in September 2007 with a broad practice. Initially, I would appear in matters ranging from Local Court sentences to winding up applications in the Supreme Court and many varied matters in between. My practice settled into predominately criminal law and family law, where I would regularly be briefed to appear in jury trials or defended hearings. I also had the pleasure of being able to teach at UOW. I thoroughly enjoyed coordinating the advocacy subject and occasionally teaching in evidence.

In 2017, I very humbly accepted the position of Head of Chambers at Hargrave Chambers, a position I treasured until my appointment to the Local Court in 2021.

What has been your greatest and most satisfying achievement in your career so far?

KP: Need I say my current appointment?! It has been a lifelong dream for me to be a magistrate and it is why I decided to study law. I started off as a clerk in the short matters group doing mentions and took each step as it came. I enjoyed instructing in murder trials and I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to junior in the first conviction in NSW under the new ‘one punch’ legislation. I was exposed to some of the best advocacy I have ever witnessed and the learning curve was exponential. One of the most rewarding parts of my career so far has been the opportunity to give complainants a voice and allow them to be heard. This feeling of helping others on their journey was very important and rewarding.

MH: Without a doubt I would have to say my greatest career achievement to date was my appointment to the Local Court. I have found satisfaction regularly in my career when I have been able to use my skills to interpret and translate the law in a way that assists the most vulnerable in our community to understand and participate in the legal system.

In 2021 the total number of women on the Local Court has just reached 69, one magistrate shy of 50 per cent of the total of 140. Do you think this is significant and if so, why?

KP: It is significant because I believe that the Court should be seen as a reflection of the community that it represents. I am proud to be part of a profession that recognises the importance of gender equality. This did not happen as a result of legislated quotas and it did not happen overnight. For many years the Local Court has selected women based on merit – they are astute lawyers, good decision makers, team players and are capable of administering efficient justice. All appointments should be based on merit and not gender. These women are modelling career engagement, competence and a commitment to their families which may change the opportunities for women of the future.

MH: During my time in practice I’ve observed a marked change in the gender of the judiciary. At times in Wollongong all members of the judiciary were women. This was motivating and a clear catalyst for me to seek appointment with confidence that my gender would not be a barrier. In my opinion, those tasked with the privilege of decision making should not only be highly skilled but also as representative of the community as possible.

What challenges have you personally faced, or seen other women face, in the law profession?

KP: Women can be tough on themselves and may not seek out opportunities as they are worried they won’t do it well. It is important to overcome nerves and challenge yourself to take opportunities, trusting that you will do it well enough. Working part-time, I felt I needed to keep up with full-time male and female colleagues. In reality, the workload really was not overly different but I was hard on myself. The mental load for women, especially with families, is gruelling. Being present in your profession and at home for your family is challenging. I accept that in today’s society a lot of men are equally responsible for this mental load and that is a welcome change. I applaud those men for understanding that it is a joint responsibility to juggle career and the family.

MH: As a barrister I was a sole trader, which meant I not only had to focus on the practice of law but also on running my business. This structure, at times, gave me amazing freedoms. I essentially could choose which briefs to accept (subject to the cab rank rule of course), how many at a time, when to start and finish each day, when not in court. I could also book leave whenever I wanted. Naturally, each choice came with a consequence. A brief turned away are fees you are unable to secure and potentially the loss of a relationship with an instructing solicitor. Too many briefs and you sacrifice family time and sleep. When my children were young, to maximise my time with them, I moderated the amount of court work I accepted as balancing family commitments with inflexible court sitting hours was challenging.

Do you feel that that recent events in Australian politics and the Women’s March 4 Justice will assist in creating further change towards historically male-dominated sectors (such as law)?

KP: I’m optimistic it will assist. In my view, men need to see women march and hear their stories. Men also need to march WITH woman. Attend functions WITH women so that they can be exposed to and really hear the stories. Whilst men must accept that there is a deep history of marginalisation, disadvantage and abuse of women in our society and that they must take a leading role in any change, we must all work together if we are to have lasting cultural change. There will also be no progress if the business and legal communities continue to see traditionally masculine character traits as the exemplar for effective and efficient management. Empathy, collaboration and communication are important qualities in leaders. The conversation must continue until real change is made.

MH: I am cautiously optimistic. Whilst the recent events reignited conversations around the issues facing women in the workplace, a more sustained conversation is required for long-lasting change.

What advice do you have to women currently studying law?

KP: Don’t ever think you are an imposter! You have worked hard to be where you are and the law calls for all types of personalities. You can be highly academic with an amazing recall of cases, you can be a compassionate listener, you can be a ‘facts’ lawyer. Whatever you are, you have your own unique skill set and do not compare yourself to others. Stay true to yourself. A law degree can be the foundation of many interesting careers – it doesn’t always end up in legal practice, although it did for me. Practice has given me the privilege of supporting people through a difficult process in the hope that they will understand and engage with the system to achieve better outcomes for themselves and the community.

MH: Actively seek out opportunities to engage with members of the profession for mentoring, whether formal or informal. Lawyers, generally, love to talk and are happy to pass on their knowledge and experience. Establish a group of trusted colleagues to regularly debrief with as the practice of law can be all-consuming at times and they will get it. And always maintain a group of “non-lawyer” friends. This group of people is essential for balance.

Melissa Humphreys
Magistrate, Local Court of New South Wales
Bachelor of Laws, 2004
Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice, 2004

Kirralee Perry
Magistrate, Local Court of New South Wales
Bachelor of Science / Bachelor of Laws, 2000