Lawyers appearing before Ontario’s top court will now be able to change into their robes in a gender-neutral robing room.
Known as the Barristers’ Lounge, the room officially opened this week at Toronto’s historic Osgoode Hall and comprises 69 lockers and several enclosed, private change stalls.
The room’s creation was sparked by a petition launched earlier this year by Toronto lawyer Breanna Needham, who pointed to a glaring difference between the spacious men’s robing room, which had 69 lockers, and the more cramped space and 12 lockers on the women’s side, which was known on some courthouse signs as the “Lady Barristers” room.
“This is just one example of how even a small change can help to advance inclusion,” Needham told the Star.
Needham’s petition had garnered nearly 900 signatures. She said the Law Society of Ontario, the independent body that regulates the province’s legal profession, was “impressively receptive” in making the change happen in just a few months. Needham also said the support from many other lawyers for an all-gender robing room has been very encouraging.
“I am hopeful that this bodes well for the future and the continued advancement of equality, diversity, and inclusion in the legal profession,” she said.
A Law Society spokesperson confirmed the new Barristers’ Lounge was previously the male lawyers’ robing room, with renovations to the washroom and changing area.
Spokesperson Susan Tonkin said there are no plans to change the women barrister’s washroom and lounge for now, but that the law society will monitor use of the space.
Lawyers must change into black robes with white tabs at the neck when appearing before most levels of court in Canada. Aside from the Ontario Court of Appeal, Osgoode Hall also houses the Divisional Court, a branch of the Superior Court of Justice that hears appeals from tribunals, among other things.
A 2018 article in Canadian Lawyer magazine described the men’s robing room as something out of an “old-money golf and country club,” with a “comfortable lounge section” containing a sofa and large table and chairs.
On the women’s side, lawyers had told the Star earlier this year that there are some small benches and floral-print furniture near the lockers, as well as a sitting room with a small desk and a bathroom.
“When you compare (the men’s side) to the woman’s, the women’s literally looks like leftover furniture from someone’s grandmother,” lawyer Lori Anne Thomas said earlier this year.
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Needham had said an all-gender room would not just fulfil the purpose of allowing lawyers to change into their robes, but also provide the opportunity for networking and discussions for all lawyers.
“It’s about more than just the space, it’s about access to informal mentoring, the conversations that go on in these robing rooms,” Needham said in February.