Bullying, discrimination and harassment at the Bar is perceived to be tolerated “to a certain extent” due to its “adversarial, male-dominated culture and competitive nature”, new research has found.
A study for the Bar Standards Board (BSB) said many of the incidents recorded by participants occurred during pupillage, which was “arguably the most vulnerable stage” in a barrister’s career in terms of bullying and harassment.
The qualitative study by YouGov included allegations that clerks were involved in “starving certain barristers of work so they were forced to move chambers, and that unfair allocation of work across the Bar was “rife”.
YouGov interviewed 30 barristers, who had all either experienced or observed bullying, harassment or discrimination, and five non-barristers.
Researchers said many of the incidents raised in the interviews happened to pupil barristers, reluctant to speak out “for fear of appearing ungrateful to the chambers” or being seen as troublemakers.
“Pupillage is the stage in which many barristers felt at their most vulnerable, and the stage with the greatest power imbalance”.
One barrister said: “When I was a pupil I was really bullied in chambers by my supervisor – every piece of work I did wasn’t good enough. I’d be shouted at because I left the pub at 10 o’clock rather than 11pm”.
Researchers said: “A small number of female barristers interviewed had experienced sexual harassment within the last 10 years, but many more had observed or heard of it happening to others, especially to females, pupils and younger/junior barristers.
“Within the interviews, alleged perpetrators were most often older and senior male barristers who were from their chambers or other organisations (e.g. who they met at an inn meal or training course).
“Incidents ranged from low levels of sexual harassment such as sexual innuendos and unwanted flirting, to more serious incidents such as unwanted kissing and touching.”
One barrister said: “I was aware of a pupil barrister who was sexually harassed by a senior member of chambers… This happened at least once a week.”
Two of the non-barristers interviewed complained of “older and more senior barristers attending events to meet younger staff or students” and “purposefully sitting next to individuals they were attracted to”.
Some barristers interviewed said there was “a great deal of distrust” towards the clerks in chambers, due to a “lack of transparency” over decisions about allocation of work and belief that there was favouritism.
One barrister complained that their senior clerk “was an individual who sought to control every aspect of chambers by bestowing on certain people the good work” and so controlling the chambers.
“He was sexist, racist, had very stereotypical ideas about how a barrister should be or act… He was trying to control the profile of chambers – if he didn’t want someone there he would starve them of work.”
Most of the barristers interviewed had not formally reported their experiences to the BSB or Bar Council.
“The key reasons were fear of a negative impact on their reputation and, therefore, their earning potential and career progression,” YouGov said.
Researchers commented that across interviews it was clear that implementation and awareness of the BSB’s 2012 equality rules was “inconsistent and patchy”.
Many barristers were confused about the roles and responsibilities of the BSB versus the Bar Council, and what help the BSB could offer.
“Many felt that the organisation is designed to enforce the rules rather than protect individual barristers’ interests, and, as such, were confused as to which specific mechanisms it has in place to protect barristers from bullying, discrimination and harassment.”
Researchers concluded that greater transparency in chambers about how cases are allocated “would both demonstrate where discrimination is taking place, but also, just as crucially, where it is not”.
Meanwhile, the duty of barristers to report to the BSB, which was regarded by interviewees as both an enabler and barrier to reporting misconduct, should be replaced by “a range of different reporting options”.
Amit Popat, the BSB’s head of equality and access, commented: “It is plain from the study that there are significant cultural factors, including power imbalances, which inhibit the reporting of bullying and harassment.”
Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar, added: “This report is a helpful reminder that everyone at the Bar needs to keep shining a light on bullying, discrimination and harassment.
“The BSB’s findings reflect our own experience of work on this behaviour which has long-term negative consequences for individuals and the profession as a whole.”
Bar Council research in 2018 found that a third of women barristers, those from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background and disabled barristers had experienced harassment, bullying or discrimination in recent years, while last year the Association of Women Barristers said inappropriate behaviour by male barristers in robing rooms and at Bar messes “still abounds”.