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Is getting more women into arbitration asking for the moon?

legal matters

It cannot have escaped your notice that AJ columnists have recently peppered their contributions with references to their windswept or sun- scorched holidays. Equally, you will have noticed that I have not. This is not because barristers don't have summer breaks: on the contrary, theirs are longer than most and I have only recently returned from mine.

The High Court has four legal terms broken up by vacations during which, as a rule, the courts do not sit. The long vacation starts at the end of the summer term, in July, and runs to the beginning of October. Traditionally you would not find a barrister for love, or even money, during the summer months. Although times are harder now, the Temple is still something of a desert during August when most of its members have packed up and left for their places in the Languedoc, Umbria or Walberswick and the clerks' room is manned by a skeleton crew working half days in shorts and tee-shirts. (Or so I imagine.)

During September members of chambers return with tales of wine-tasting, or beaches and Eurodisney, depending on the age of their children, and settle down to sorting out their new computer, career plan or room move before the start of the new term. And of course, like our Prime Minister and captains of industry, we are bristling with good ideas and new initiatives. Mine are as follows:

to do something about the scandalously low number of women arbitrators, and to write a work of fiction, tongue in cheek of course, combining the popularist ingredients of sex, intrigue and the law, with the more obscure subjects of standard forms of building contracts (including, and this is a real challenge, the form for international contracts, FIDIC) and concrete.

Hard to say which is the more ambitious but let's start with women arbitrators.

The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators has as its mission statement to be the premier world-wide body for the facilitation of private dispute resolution through arbitration. The role of the Chartered Institute is particularly relevant to the construction industry which produces the largest amount, both in number and value, of domestic arbitrations. Despite recent developments which have undermined the monopoly enjoyed by arbitrators over construction disputes, most building contracts contain arbitration clauses, arbitration is favoured by contractors and, increasingly, the President of the Chartered Institute, as opposed to, for example, the riba or the rics, is called upon to appoint construction arbitrators.

In recognition of this pivotal role and in an attempt to bolster up the sometimes flagging reputation of construction arbitration, the recent past chairman, Harold Crowter, and the incoming chairman, Neil Caplan, have hatched plans to improve and monitor the quality of arbitrators. Although membership of the Institute continues to grow, the number of women members is lamentable: of a membership of more than 9,300, less than 500 are women. This is hard to explain. It may be because of the age demographic. Only a third of the Institute's members are under 45 and although many professions now recruit with greater parity, the further up you go, the fewer women you find.

Youthful recruits may also be discouraged by the age threshold for sitting as an arbitrator of 35. Furthermore the road to qualification, particularly for non-lawyers, is somewhat uphill and professional women over 35 tend to have little spare time in which to study.

I suspect that women believe that arbitration is not for them. If so, they are wrong. Anyone whose job it is to exercise judgment and solve problems in an environment of confrontation can make a good arbitrator. Women are dispute resolvers anyway, dealing with conflict as they do as part of their daily diet, managing it, overseeing it, solving it and sometimes dissolving it. Women architects are therefore doubly qualified for the job. So come on, if I can write a novel about sex and concrete, you can become an arbitrator.

Details: Chartered Institute of Arbitrators tel 020 7837 4483 or web www.arbitrators.org

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