Some 55% barristers would consider leave the Bar if the courts adopt extended operating hours (EOH) and they could set back female barristers’ progress by 50 years, research has found.
A ‘risk assessment’ conducted by the newly created North Eastern Circuit Women’s Forum showed overwhelming opposition to EOH.
“The evidence presents an overwhelming picture: EOH, introduced without safeguards, will impact on women to a far greater extent than men.
“The obvious consequence is the further attrition of women in a profession that is already grappling with an alarmingly low rate of retention of women…
“This is not a hypothetical concern about a distant possibility of people leaving the Bar. We already stand on the brink of an exodus from the profession.”
With the courts service working out how EOH could help reduce case backlogs, the forum argued that policymakers failed to understand the reality of working life at the Bar or consider the difficulties of those with families to find childcare out of working hours, provision of which has worsened since the pandemic hit.
Some 678 of the 950 barristers on the circuit responded to a survey; women make up 39% of its members. The forum said the progress of women was already tricky – only six of 48 silks whose practice is based solely on the North Eastern Circuit are female.
In all, 85% of those polled did not support a temporary increase in sitting hours on weekdays, rising to 91% when it came to weekend sittings. Just 12% of respondents felt they could continue their practice without significant difficulty if EOH were implemented.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) said it was likely that EOH would cause them to re-consider their practice, with 55% admitting it would lead them to consider leaving the Bar altogether – seven in 10 said they had never or rarely thought of giving up the Bar before Covid-19.
The survey showed how difficult childcare would be, with most unable to access their pre-Covid arrangements, and unaware of any other providers that would allow them to work EOH. Seven in 10 did not having access to other, informal arrangements.
The introduction of EOH would make practice even harder for primary carers. “The reality is that this group is almost wholly women. In our view, this amounts to a working practice that discriminates against the protected characteristic of sex.”
The report also highlighted how the “vast majority” of barristers were already working significant hours outside of the regular working day. More than half of those commenting stated they worked 10-plus hours each weekend.
There was, the forum argued, “a persisting misunderstanding” in respect of the work undertaken in the court building but outside of a hearing, and done outside of the building.
EOH would also mean that 80% of barristers polled would have to stop extracurricular activities, such as serving on Bar Council or chambers committees, or overseeing pupils.
The report concluded: “The proposal to introduce EOH assumes room for manoeuvre which simply does not exist. The foreseeable consequence of the introduction of EOH is the loss of yet more female talent from the Bar. The importance of retaining the remaining cohort of women barristers cannot be overstated.
“When EOH are being considered, the policymakers must have the issues raised in this report at the forefront of their minds. If the reality presented in this report is overlooked, the progress made by women in this profession will be pushed back half a century.”