AS THE three judges took their places on the bench in the austere setting of the Court of Session in Edinburgh yesterday, their presence caused an unusual flurry of interest.
Roy Martin, QC, paused before proceedings commenced and said: "I hope my Ladies will not mind if I say what a privilege it is to open submissions in these historic circumstances."
The case of Wise Property Care Ltd (trading as White Preservation) against White Thomson Preservation Ltd and a dispute over the right to use the name would not normally have attracted such attention, except for it being the first time three female judges had sat together on the bench in Scotland.
But last night, legal bodies said the presence of Ladies Paton, Smith and Dorrian on the appeal court bench should not obscure the fact that Scotland's legal establishment is monopolised by men.
Scotland has 34 judges, with one place vacant. Of that number, only four are women, Lady Clark having joined Ladies Paton, Smith and Dorrian in 2006. The first appointment of a female judge, Lady Cosgrove, only came in 1996.
Two QCs, Sheriff Rita Rae and Morag Wise, serve as temporary judges. Of the 450 advocates practising, just 106 are female compared with 344 males.
Last month, the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland announced it was to carry out an investigation aimed at ending the male monopoly, and examining the barriers against women and people of ethnic minorities progressing into senior positions. Neil Stevenson, head of strategic change at the Law Society, gave yesterday's historic moment a cautious welcome.
"It's great to see a success story, but we have to be realistic: there are still some issues about women becoming partners and taking up judicial appointments. We at the Law Society need to keep campaigning," Mr Stevenson said. But he added: "There are more men than women retiring from the profession … we predict that by 2011 there will be more female than male lawyers."
Latest figures show that while women may not have reached the higher echelons in the legal professions, they are beginning to outnumber men in the early stages of the profession and are in the majority studying law at university. Law Society of Scotland figures for 2006 reveal that of the 10,152 practising solicitors, 4,490 were women compared with 5,662 men.
But the numbers of women qualifying as solicitors in Scotland between November 2006 and October 2007 reached 353 compared with only 199 men.
Amanda Jones, a partner at Maclay, Murray & Spens, said: "The simple fact of having an all-female court doesn't indicate that the balance of judges is neutral in its entirety.
"It's serendipitous that this should happen. It's not indicative of a bench that's gender- balanced. It's disappointing that in 2008 it's the first time for an all-female bench; there have been all-male benches for years and no-one's commented."
THE woman who paved the way as the first female judge in Scotland, Lady Cosgrove, was among the first to offer her congratulations on yesterday's events.
She said: "When I was first appointed, I always hoped and dreamed that women would be truly represented on the bench, and I am very happy to hear about the three-woman appeal court, because that is a step in the right direction."
It was as recently as 1996 that Hazel Aronson, QC, broke almost 500 years of male dominance with her elevation to the supreme courts bench.
Lady Cosgrove retired two years ago, and recalled in an interview with The Scotsman at the time: "I have just been in the right place at the right time, part of a generation of women for whom there have been no barriers and ... have been able to reach the heights in their chosen profession."