Bar Council targets chambers’ “ineffective” harassment policies

Harassment: Push back against inappropriate behaviour

The Bar Council is to publish new guidance for barristers and chambers on dealing with sexual harassment, amid claims that many chambers’ existing policies are “wholly ineffective”.

This is because either “victims don’t have confidence in those handling complaints” or simply they do not know where to find the policy or even if it exists.

There will also be a push to educate barristers about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.

Sophie Garner and Esther Gamble, chair and vice-chair respectively of the Midland Circuit Women’s Forum, and members of the Bar Council’s equality and diversity retention panel, are among those who have been working with the Bar Council to produce a new and comprehensive package of guidance for barristers and chambers.

Writing in the latest issue of the Bar Council’s Counsel magazine, they said the package would include a new model policy to be adopted or adapted to help prevent and deal with harassment; an interactive training course designed to educate and equip everyone at a set, from its head to the junior clerk; a flowchart with a clear guide as to what steps can be taken in the event of a complaint arising; and a revised version of the Bar Council publication, Tackling Sexual Harassment: Information for Chambers.

They explained: “The overarching aim behind the redesign of the Bar Council guidance was to provide practical, realistic solutions, together with support to tackle what seems to be – even in 2018 – an intractable problem in our profession.

“Sexual harassment is not just a problem in its own right, but often goes hand in hand with a pattern of deep-seated discriminatory and outmoded attitudes towards women within chambers.

“For example, overly paternalistic or jolly avuncular comments to a female junior colleague might seem innocuous, but the impact can be to infantilise the recipient in their own and others’ eyes. This can then lead to assumptions being made about the recipient’s competence and ‘ability to cope’ by colleagues and clerks alike – potentially impacting, in turn, on work distribution, which can amount to direct discrimination.”

The pair wrote that “front and centre has to be education about inappropriate behaviour”. It was, they said, time to acknowledged and tackle “uncomfortable truths”.

“Why is a comment that would quite reasonably raise a laugh down the pub with your mates inappropriate at a circuit dinner? Why is it that making a casual ‘jokey’ remark in front of her colleagues may leave a usually strong woman feeling shaken, intimidated and isolated?

“What about a comment to a younger female opponent, at the door of the court, about how ‘nice’ her outfit looks? This may seem innocuous but perhaps think of it this way: would you make the same comment, in the same way, about a male opponent the same age as yourself?

“Would you look him up and down, pausing in the chest or thigh region for that tell-tale nanosecond… and then make a ‘compliment’ about the way he looks? Such comments could leave a junior opponent flustered, tongue-tied and humiliated.”

The barristers argued that some at the Bar believed that “subtly denigrating colleagues is a legitimate way of boosting one’s own reputation” – and that it was not just women who were victims, or men who were perpetrators.

“Yes, everyone is entitled to let their hair down and have some fun, but not at the expense of others’ dignity; and yes, it’s possible there will be false, malicious complaints, but this has always been so and there is no evidence of it actually happening.”

They pointed to the 2016 Bar Standards Board survey Women at the Bar, which showed that 40% of female barristers have been sexually harassed and 80% of them have never reported it.

Ms Garner and Ms Gamble stressed the importance of discouraging a ‘tick box’ approach to compliance with the new sexual harassment policy – an anti-harassment coordinator should be appointed to spearhead the policy’s implementation, while there should be a number of people in every chambers who are trained to handle concerns about harassment.

“If the only person appointed to help when someone is sexually harassed is a senior member of chambers – or, even worse, a committee – this will often be a deterrent to a victim coming forwards.”

They concluded: “We are confident that the Bar Council guidance and new training will provide chambers with the tools and inspiration needed to handle concerns about harassment proficiently and empathetically, and give victims more confidence to speak up about what they have experienced…

“Now it’s up to all of us – and especially those in management positions – to take a fresh approach to sexual harassment, with the Bar Council firmly behind us.”

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