The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is to consider requiring that chambers have a ‘work allocation officer’ as part of its Women at the Bar equality project, it emerged yesterday.
It will also look at whether women returning after maternity leave should not have to pay any contribution from their fees to chambers for a limited time.
It is a continuation of work begun in 2016, when a BSB survey revealed that nearly half of female barristers had experienced discrimination at work and 40% harassment, with a lack of reporting and lack of compliance with and awareness of the equality rules other major problems.
The BSB recently held a series of workshops to explore potential solutions to the issues raised by the survey and improve the retention and progression of women at the Bar.
A paper before yesterday’s meeting of the regulator’s full board said: “There was particularly strong consensus around the need to change culture and attitudes at the Bar, a greater need for equality training, increased transparency of equality policies, improved reporting frameworks for unfair treatment, more structured support for women returning from maternity leave and expanded requirements relating to work allocation monitoring.”
The recommendations arising from the workshops have been synthesised into draft action plan, including investigating the concept of a work allocation officer.
The 2016 survey found concerns about a lack of transparency, favouritism and the difficulty of monitoring effectively when it came to work allocation.
The draft action plan did not go into any detail of the role of the officer, but a summary of the workshops highlighted the need for improved transparency, expanded monitoring – going beyond the current rule, which applies just to unallocated work, to ‘marked’ work too – and improved communication between clerks and barristers.
Examples of good practice that came out of the workshops included one chambers whose clerks offered every barrister who was available to solicitors, breaking them down by seniority and letting solicitors choose. Another kept records of who has been offered/accepted for work, including information about when solicitors have been offered a particular barrister and said no.
The workshops also said clerks should have a zero tolerance attitude to discrimination by solicitors, such as those who insisted that a male or female barrister dealt with given cases.
The draft plan also suggested changing the rules to require greater monitoring by chambers of flexible working, and removing fixed monthly rent during and after maternity leave, along with a zero contribution on all fees for a limited period after return.
Other possible Handbook changes included requiring chambers to publish their equality and harassment policies on their websites, as well as requirements for exit interviews and for chambers to record and report the numbers of complaints about unfair treatment and the outcomes.
Away from regulatory reforms, the plan talked about developing guidance for a return-to-work ‘framework’ to ensure that women have the necessary support before return and during the initial months of practice.
It also highlighted work that could be done to improve the visibility of flexible workers in chambers and overcoming the perceptions of such workers being ‘part time’ or not fully committed.
After various comments were made at yesterday’s meeting, the action plan – which will run for two years – will be brought back to the next board meeting to be finalised.
Meanwhile, the BSB is today publishing its annual report on diversity at the Bar, which shows small increases in the proportions of women (37%) and female QCs (14.8%), and of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) barristers (13.2%).
However, women are still under-represented at the Bar, particularly at QC level, while career progression remains a problem for BAME barristers.
The report said that despite a low response rate to the question on the type of school attended (only 36.7% replied), “the data suggest that a disproportionate number of barristers attended a UK fee-paying secondary school between the ages of 11-18” – 33% of those who replied.
It continued: “Even if all the barristers who chose not to respond to this question had gone to state schools, the proportion who went to fee-paying schools is higher than in the wider population, with 12.3% (including non-respondents) having primarily attended a fee-paying school between 11-18, compared to approximately 7% of school children in England at any age and 10.1% of UK-domiciled full-time first degree entrants in the UK in 2015/16.”