Bullying, harassment and discrimination a “systemic” problem for the Bar

Barristers: Behaviours a problem across the profession

Bullying, harassment and discrimination at the Bar is a “systemic” problem, the Bar Council said yesterday, with 44% of barristers saying they have experienced or witnessed it in the past two years.

As a result, it is to launch a profession-wide review to identify solutions, saying that the response “cannot be to focus on reporting alone”.

Data from the Bar Council’s biennial survey of the profession showed that women from ethnic minorities were three times more likely than white men to have faced bullying or harassment – and six times more likely to have experienced discrimination.

It also revealed that 59% of those who reported an incident of bullying, harassment or discrimination said it took place at court, compared to 36% in their workplace, 20% online, 8% at a work social event and 4% on social media.

The overall 44% figure is an increase from 38% in 2021 and 31% in 2017, the report, which canvassed the views of 3,030 barristers, said.

“It may be that greater awareness and coverage of these issues has resulted in barristers feeling more confident in identifying and reporting experiences, or it may be that the prevalence of bullying is increasing.

“Either way, the level of reporting of bullying, harassment and discrimination suggests an entirely unacceptable state of affairs.

Some 30% of respondents said they had personally experienced bullying or harassment in person at work, 15% while working online; a further 24% and 11% respectively had observed it.

Four in 10 women (41%) had experienced it, more than twice the proportion of men (19%), as had 43% of barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared with 27% of white barristers.

The figure rose to 52% of female barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared with 17% of white men.

Barristers aged 34 and younger, with non-Christian religious beliefs, who were LGBTQ, were disabled, went to state school or who were carers for adults were all more likely than other groups to report experiencing bullying or harassment.

The trends were similar when it came to discrimination, suffered by 14% of barristers and witnessed by a further 6%.

A quarter (26%) of women said they had experienced discrimination compared with 9% of men. The figure rose to 43% of female barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds and dropped to 7% of white men.

Ridicule or demeaning language and a misuse of power or position were the main manifestations of misconduct – most notably at the criminal and family Bars – followed by “overbearing supervision or undermining of work”.

At the commercial Bar, more respondents reported experiencing exclusion or victimisation.

Some 122 either experienced or saw sexual harassment. The report said: “Noting this is a small sample size from which to draw conclusions, 82% (100) reported sexual or sexist comments, remarks or sounds and 43% (52) reported inappropriate physical contact.

“Other types of behaviour mentioned included sexual propositions, being the subject of sexist behaviour (e.g., on work WhatsApp groups), receiving sexually explicit content via email or social media, bragging, use of demeaning language, stalking and unwanted attention.”

The majority reported a member of the judiciary as the person responsible for bullying and harassment (up from 45% in 2021) followed by a more senior barrister (31%) or a barrister at the same level (14%).

While 26% of respondents said they had reported incidents of discrimination, only 15% did for harassment or bullying. Nearly half of those who reported to their employer/chambers or to another barriers were satisfied with the response.

Some 42% of those who chose not to report feared the repercussions of doing so, while approaching a third lacked faith in the protocols/reporting procedure.

Further findings from the Bar Council’s Talk to Spot app, which allows confidential and anonymous reports of such misconduct, said that, when asked how it had made them feel, “the most frequently reported words are ashamed, anxious, alone, depressed, disappointed, embarrassed, humiliated, insecure, shocked, unsupported, useless”.

The report added: “Many questioned whether this is the profession for them and have considered leaving the profession. There is often shock that these behaviours are happening, and that there is very little being done about it.”

The report recommended that the Bar should approach bullying, harassment and discrimination “as a systemic issue that requires a response across the whole profession”, with a review established by spring 2024 and to report a year later to consider “effective prevention and mitigating strategies”.

Bar Council chair Nick Vineall KC said: “The behaviours reported are observed across the profession and involve judges, barristers, chambers’ staff, solicitors, as well as court staff. People who experience these behaviours include Bar students.

“Behaviours witnessed in the court room have led to clients questioning if their case will be fairly considered, compromising their trust in the justice system.

“We have identified a genuine fear that to report might have detrimental repercussions for an individual’s career at the Bar. Some people have been told, as part of the bullying behaviour, that if they complained they would never work at the Bar again.”

While the Bar was not the only sector to face these challenges, he said, “the evidence suggests that there is a widespread problem at the Bar”.

“We consider that this problem is both cultural and a consequence of the external pressures on professional life within an acutely under-resourced justice system. This is therefore a systemic issue for the Bar.”

Accepting the recommendation for a review, Mr Vineall said “the profession’s response cannot be to focus on reporting alone”.

He explained: “Waiting for individuals to make complaints places the burden of effecting collective cultural change on those most gravely affected. Our experience of this, and evidence from elsewhere, shows that this will never work and will not address the systemic issues which create the problem.

“The solutions are complicated. We believe encouraging and responding to individual reports must now be combined with more preventative measures.

“We therefore intend to commission a Bar-wide review to identify solutions, specifically to identify prevention and mitigating strategies that will help address unacceptable behaviours.”

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