Study Finds Few Instances Of Gender Bias In Courts

April 14, 1991|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff writer

Harford County courts are, for the most part, free of gender bias, except perhaps in the area of family law, a study by the Harford County Bar Association concludes.

"We couldn't find a pattern of discrimination or gender bias, but we did find instances of it in family law," said Stuart Jay Robinson, a Bel Air lawyer who was co-chair of the county bar association committee that conducted the year-long study.

"Finding out that there were instances of gender bias allowed us to share with the bar and courthouse personnel the fact that we need to work a little harder."

But Robinson said the committee could not determine if the reports of gender bias in the area of family law meant that women received more favorable rulings than men. "There's not enough statistical data to draw a conclusion one way or the other,"he said. "But this means we'll go back and ask more questions."

The survey, the first gender bias survey done by a local bar association in the state, queried Harford County lawyers, judges and court personnel. More than 200 lawyers were sent surveys and 59 of them responded. Of the eight Harford judges sent the survey, five responded. Thesurvey does not say how how many Harford court workers received the survey nor how many of them responded.

No defendants or plaintiffswere questioned for the survey. Robinson said he hopes to develop a survey for plaintiffs and defendants.

The survey results, releasedin late March, showed that of the 59

lawyers who responded to thequestionnaire, 35 percent believed the gender of a party affected the outcome of cases in which they were involved.

The survey also showed 73 per cent of those who responded said they never had been involved in a case where they believed their gender had affected the outcome. The committee concluded that the responses "reflected no significant answers indicating that the courts treat males or females more favorably than the other with certain notable exceptions."

But there were exceptions in the area of family law:

* Child custody cases-- 53 percent of the respondents believed the courts favored women over men.

* Child visitation cases -- 36 percent believed the courts favored women over men.

* Domestic violence cases -- 33 percent believed the courts treated women more favorably.

Robinson said these statistics don't prove gender bias occurs in family law cases in Harford: "In accident, injury or criminal cases you're not dealing with intangible issues. In family law, you're looking at the potential of changing a family unit."

As a result of the study, the committee has recommended the bar appoint a committee to examine its own selection of officers and committee chairs and that public hearings be conducted on the topic of gender bias.

"We wanted to see if there were instances of gender bias and to raise the consciousness level," said Robinson. "Now we'll be able to look further and see how we want to address these issues."

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