Bar Council chair rejects challenge from Twitter row barrister

Sweeting: Sententious nonsense

The chair of the Bar Council has dismissed as nonsense the suggestion that it had to publicly support the barrister at the centre of a racism row over his comments on Twitter.

Jon Holbrook caused a storm of outrage for tweeting that “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour”.

It was in response to an Equality and Human Rights Commission tweet about a Black girl, Ruby Williams, who was sent home from school because her Afro-style hair breached its uniform policy and then successfully challenged it under the Act.

Mr Holbrook was expelled from his chambers soon after, although he said he had resigned four days earlier.

In an open letter to Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC, Mr Holbrook asked for its public backing.

“My expulsion shows that it is now impossible to practise as a barrister whilst expressing conservative and populist opinions,” he said.

“If you are content with this state of affairs, then the public should know that the Bar has become a profession for those who either hold left-wing politics or who do not publicly challenge them.”

He argued that the Bar Council should be willing to defend barristers’ “lawful rights to act freely and to speak freely”.

He went on: “The tweet that resulted in my cancellation was a criticism of an equality law that empowers schoolchildren to use race and culture to undermine school uniform policies…

“My point is that cancel culture is invariably used to silence conservative and populist views and this is why I doubt that the Bar Council will support my right to speak freely.

“I fear the Bar Council, like other professional organisations, has become a political outfit that champions left-wing views on identity politics and much else.”

Mr Sweeting described the suggestion that Mr Holbrook could to set the Bar Council a test which it could only pass by publicly supporting his views as “sententious nonsense”.

He said: “Behind all of this is a young woman, still a teenager, who brought a claim in accordance with the law. She is a student, no doubt experiencing the same pressures as the rest of her generation.

“You could have expressed your point in other ways. I wonder if the real test here is of personal judgment and empathy.”

Mr Sweeting said Mr Holbrook appeared to take “a dim view” of the Equality Act, “which Parliament enacted to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity”.

“You chose to characterise the claim as one involving the undermining of school discipline by ‘a stroppy teenager of colour’,” he said. “No one doubts your right to express your opinions on social media but there is a constraint on your entitlement to do so.”

This was the obligation on barrister not to behave in a way which is likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in them or the profession – Mr Sweeting pointed to Bar Standards Board guidance that said comments on social media designed to demean or insult would likely be in breach of this.

“It is also advisable to avoid getting drawn into heated debates or arguments,” he continued. “Such behaviour could compromise the requirements for barristers to act with honesty and integrity and not to unlawfully discriminate against any person.

“You should always take care to consider the content and tone of what you are posting or sharing. Comments that you reasonably consider to be in good taste may be considered distasteful or offensive by others.”

On the barrister’s departure from chambers, Mr Sweeting said: “I understand that you resigned from your chambers some days before you were expelled because you concluded that you no longer wanted to practise as a full-time barrister and wished to have more time ‘to polemicise against the woke’.

“I do not know whether those who have known you longest in a professional capacity expelled you as the result of a single tweet, as you suggest, or had wider concerns. They were entitled to form their own view as to whether it was possible for you to remain a member of chambers.”

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