The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is to step up efforts to encourage more reporting of bullying and harassment but says ultimately the onus is on the Bar to change its culture.
Among the reforms will be a clear statement that victims of bullying and harassment who do not meet the requirement to report the misconduct will not face regulatory action.
The report on addressing bullying and harassment at the Bar is the culmination of a three-year project that included a 2020 YouGov survey that found bullying, discrimination and harassment was perceived to be tolerated “to a certain extent” due to the Bar’s “adversarial, male-dominated culture and competitive nature”.
This reflected various other pieces of research over recent years, but there has been little use of the Bar Council’s ‘Talk to Spot’ app or of the pilot harassment support schemes approved by the BSB.
The report said: “These studies and other research evidence point towards bullying and harassment being not only prevalent at the Bar but also under-reported, whether to the regulator, employers, chambers or others.
“This is consistent with low numbers of bullying- and harassment-related reports to the BSB.”
It said the evidence on the effectiveness of the duty to report was “mixed”, meaning it was not right to remove the duty or create a formal exemption for those subject to harassment.
“Equally, we do not believe that those subject to bullying and harassment should have that experience compounded by fear of regulatory action, should they feel unable to report it.”
Though this was already the BSB’s policy, it will now be spelt out in the guidance in the BSB Handbook.
The regulator will also provide more information on when instances of bullying and harassment should be reported, and how it deals with reports to make clear that “reporters are always in control of what information they share with us and are never obliged to become more involved with their case after their initial report”.
The BSB said that ultimately the roots of bullying and harassment “can only really be addressed by cultural change in barristers’ workplaces”, especially with evidence indicating that barristers were more likely to report to their chambers or employers than to the BSB, “particularly for what they consider to be ‘low-level’ cases”.
As a result, the BSB is to review “the expectations of chambers” and how the role of the equality & diversity officer could be strengthened – in particular by ensuring a sufficiently senior person has the post – as part of the current review of its equality rules.
Alongside this will be further guidance to chambers on how to put in place “robust systems” to handle allegations, whilst recognising when serious matters should be reported to the BSB.
“Our aim is to encourage the reporting of these behaviours by ensuring multiple reporting routes are available to barristers.
“Where the BSB is satisfied that such robust systems exist under senior oversight, we shall be willing to see chambers undertake initial investigations provided always that a report continues to be made to us as the regulator.”
Despite the lack of use of the pilot harassment support schemes – which waive the duty to report for groups of properly trained barristers supporting victims – they and the waivers are to become permanent.
The BSB said its engagement with the Bar “highlighted the value of informal, supportive reporting routes” such as these.
It will also work with the Bar Council to dispel the “common misconception” that a report made to the Talk to Spot app is a report to the BSB or fulfilment of the duty to report.
The BSB will instigate a programme of outreach work to address perceptions that it is “remote and authoritarian”, which is also seen as a bar to reporting.
To address the particular issues faced by pupils and junior barristers, stakeholders suggested a qualifying session on bullying and harassment as part of the mandatory training for joining the Bar.
“We will work with the Inns in order to better understand the extent to which the topic is covered in the sessions already being run, to ask them to develop new sessions where the topic is not sufficiently covered, and to provide our insights into suitable content, structure and format.”
The BSB report concluded: “Ultimately, however, available evidence points towards the issue being one of Bar culture.”
It required a “collaborative and co-ordinated approach between the BSB, the Bar Council, the profession, and other stakeholders across the Bar and the legal sector more widely”, and the BSB would begin to address this in the work begun this month in a wider project on best practice for chambers.
Alongside the report the BSB published its new equality strategy. Its four objectives are to:
- clarify the BSB’s expectations of the Bar concerning equality, diversity and inclusion and to highlight opportunities for change;
- hold the Bar to account for reducing racial and other inequalities across the profession;
- promote a culture of inclusion at the Bar and in legal services more generally; and
- build a diverse and inclusive workforce ensuring that the BSB is itself an example of the approach the BSB is promoting.
The BSB’s director of strategy and policy, Ewen Macleod, said: “Culture change at the Bar is necessary to address the issues of bullying, discrimination and harassment. This type of behaviour has no place in a modern, inclusive Bar and the BSB will work with the profession to ensure that we make progress in combatting it.
“People who are subject to bullying, discrimination and harassment, or who are dealing with poor mental or physical health or workload issues, should be better supported and the BSB wants to play its part in doing that, in collaboration with others.”