Northern Ireland's top judge has expressed his concern at female under-representation among senior judicial roles.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said hopes that historical imbalances would diminish naturally over time through recruitment on merit do not seem to be bearing fruit.
In a speech to mark the opening of the new legal year, he set out the need to gather proper evidence and to examine any obstacles to reaching the highest judicial ranks.
Sir Declan confirmed that the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission has commissioned a team from Queen's University to examine the issue.
A conference organised by Imelda McMillan, president of the Law Society, is also to look into the issue further.
Sir Declan said: “The legal profession is the supply line for the senior judiciary, and I want to look at things that help or hinder progression at all career stages.
“We need to get the evidence base as a result of the research, take the problem apart, see what steps may be needed to lever change, develop a plan and put it into action.
“There will be a role for the judiciary, for the Judicial Appointments Commission, the legal profession, the Department of Justice, the law schools and perhaps the legislature.
“It is not an issue which will be resolved overnight but that should not stop us tackling it now, and doing all we can to make the senior legal profession and the senior judiciary attractive and accessible aspirations.”
Speaking at the Inn of Court at the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast, Sir Declan outlined efforts to improve efficiency in the justice system.
In the year ahead a key priority is to ensure the sentencing process is transparent, consistent and understood by the public.
According to the Lord Chief Justice, strong progress has been made on his first Programme of Action on Sentencing published last year. For the first time, 67 guidelines on sentencing in the Magistrates Court have been drawn up and are available on an open-access internet resource.
Sixteen new Court of Appeal guidelines had also been published, as well as landmark Crown Court judgments on human trafficking and corporate manslaughter.
With listening and engaging with the community described as a key element of the Sentencing Group's work, Sir Declan said he had agreed with Justice Minister David Ford that the group responsible for sentencing guidelines should be expanded to include lay members.
Sir Declan said the inclusion of lay members “is another significant step towards ensuring that the work of the group is the best that it can be”.
He added: “That is why I am today announcing that I intend to recruit two lay members to become part of the Sentencing Group, one with expertise in understanding the needs of victims of crime and one with expertise in criminal and sentencing law.
“This initiative is a new departure for the judiciary and an appropriate way of working which I welcome.”
Several women do hold other high-profile judicial roles in the Northern Ireland courts. They include County Court judges Corinne Philpott QC, Melody McReynolds, Gemma Loughran and Patricia Smyth. Masters of the High Court include Fiona Kelly and Hilary Wells, while the team of District Judges includes Isobel Brownlie and Ruth Collins.
There are five women district judges in the Magistrates Courts — Fiona Bagnall, Bernie Kelly, Rosie Watters, Amanda Henderson and Rosalie Prytherch.