Only a handful of the 15,000-plus members of the Bar have disclosed information such as whether they went to public or state schools, in a snub to the chairs of the Bar and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) who had personally requested it.
Members of the BSB’s main board described the fact that some of the diversity monitoring questions were answered by as few as 1.5% of barristers as “pathetic” and “embarrassing”.
Overall, just 4% of all barristers completed a voluntary monitoring page on the online Barrister Connect portal when renewing their practising certificates last March. In July a reminder e-mail was sent to the profession by Bar Council chairman Michael Todd QC and BSB chair Baroness Ruth Deech. It had virtually no effect and the total remains at around 5%.
At last week’s board meeting, the BSB approved changes to the online portal that will make it impossible to complete the authorisation to practise system without supplying diversity information or ticking a ‘prefer not to say’ box.
An explanation of why the data is important and how it will be used will also head the monitoring questionnaire.
While the BSB’s database has good information on gender, race and age, because of the poor response rate it has very low levels of data covering several of the so-called ‘protected characteristics’ outlined by the Equality Act 2010 – namely disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation – as well as socio-economic background and caring responsibilities, which the legal profession is also trying to collect.
On socio-economic background, just 1.5% of barristers disclosed what type of school they attended and 0.8% declared whether they were the first generation of their family to attend university. Separately, just 25 men among the 15,636 members of the Bar declared they were gay (0.2%), while just nine women said they were lesbian (0.1%).
In a paper presented to the board, the BSB’s research department advised that the low disclosure rates made statistical analysis unreliable. “This is problematic because the BSB has statutory and regulatory duties to promote equality and diversity in relation to all the protected characteristics listed in the  Act.”
Barrister board member Matthew Nicklin said: “We need to improve as a matter of urgency the participation. It’s so far below meaningful, it’s embarrassing.”
His lay colleague, Rob Behrens, said: “A 1.5% response rate is pathetic and it doesn’t help the reputation of the Bar or the BSB to have it and not to do something about it.”
Baroness Deech said the attitude of barristers reflected a “general national resistance” towards data collection which permeated everyday life and with which “people are getting rather fed up”.
Rolande Anderson, chair of the BSB’s equality and diversity committee, said it was “quite normal” when organisations start to collect data that there is “not always a brilliant response to it”. She said response rates should improve if a “higher level of awareness as to why it’s important for people to do this” can be achieved.
A number of board members suggested that in addition to monitoring diversity, the BSB needed to implement a system where some form of “cohort analysis” is undertaken to follow groups of barristers throughout their careers.