Bar chief: Legal Twitter pile-ons “getting out of hand”

Vineall: It costs nothing to be civil

The number of ‘pile-ons’ on legal Twitter is “getting out of hand”, the chairman of the Bar Council has argued.

The warning from Nick Vineall KC comes in advance of the Bar Standards Board looking to “tackle gendered bullying” in its revised guidance on barristers’ use of social media, which will be published next month, by introducing a case study on the issue.

Mr Vineall’s column in the latest issue of the Bar Council’s Counsel magazine followed an article in the last issue written by high-profile feminist barrister Charlotte Proudman, in which she revealed that she has complained about abuse from more than 50 “mainly White male” barristers.

Mr Vineall issued a statement of support for her in the wake of the article, saying that some of the comments directed at Dr Proudman as recorded in her article “go far, far beyond what could possibly be thought to be acceptable”.

His column noted the BSB’s upcoming guidance, saying: “It is important that all of us are able to express our opinions freely and robustly and I hope that this will be recognised in the new guidance.”

But Mr Vineall went on to stress that, wherever the line was drawn in terms of professional misconduct, “there will be a huge space where comment which does not amount to misconduct is nevertheless unkind, unnecessary, and profoundly undesirable”.

He said: “In particular, those of us who are established and senior in the profession must consider carefully the impact of what we say to, or about, junior colleagues. It’s easy to forget how acutely sensitive junior members are to anything which is unpleasantly or publicly critical, and how easily that can undermine confidence.

“I see far too many so-called ‘pile-ons’ on legal Twitter and it’s getting out of hand. It costs nothing to be civil in our dealings with one another.

“If you would not say something to someone’s face, don’t say it to them, or about them, on Twitter. And please, please think twice before criticising junior members of the profession on a public platform.”

Dr Proudman responded on Twitter: “Very pleased to see a strong message about the cultural change needed at the Bar.”

Last Saturday, in an interview with The Times, she reiterated her experience, saying: “On social media other barristers, other colleagues, solicitors, even part-time judges, have been not just bullying and harassing me, but abusive. It’s become a sport.”

She said the BSB had yet to contact her about the complaints she had made, despite saying last month that it would be writing to her “very shortly”.

She recalled meeting with a far more senior male barrister who had advised her over the years, in the wake of her making the complaints.

“At that point [the situation] was having a profound effect on me mentally. I was having sleepless nights. During the conversation I started crying. Tears were running down my cheeks. He said, ‘Oh, sweetie.’ Then I got up and he got up to give me a hug. Then he put his hands on my waist and moved them down to touch my bottom…

“I considered a complaint, but I have no confidence that the BSB would take it seriously. The vast majority of complaints seem to go nowhere, and in the past all they’ve given barristers is a slap on the wrist for sexual harassment.

“I don’t think they would protect me from the repercussions of naming him and it is likely that would be career suicide. We’ve never spoken again since.”

The papers before the BSB board meeting last month at which the revised guidance was approved said responses to its consultation on the changes argued that the regulator “needed to do more to highlight and address the misogyny and bullying faced by women at the Bar on social media”.

The BSB’s response said: “We note the concerns raised about the treatment of women on social media. This is a form of potentially discriminatory, harassing and bullying behaviour which is already captured in the social media guidance.

“However, to address this particular issue we have developed a new case study which seeks to tackle gendered bullying on social media.”

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