Covid has flattened the number of new practising barristers and hit pupillages hard, but there was a sharp rise in the proportion of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds, new figures have shown.
At the same time, women appear to have been worse affected by the overall Covid-related drop in pupillages last year than men.
As of 1 December 2020, there were 17,432 people at the Bar, made up of 1,870 QCs, 15,208 non-QCs and 354 pupils; this was an increase of 36 QCs and 60 non-QCs, but 121 fewer pupils as many chambers delayed start-dates last autumn.
The annual diversity report from the Bar Standards Board (BSB) said the increase in the number of non-QCs was much lower than the recent average of 215.
“This may suggest that there has been a greater number of non-QCs leaving the Bar this year, and/or that those that undertook pupillage in 2020 have not entered practice in the same numbers.”
The average number of pupils in recent years has been 472; last September, the BSB warned that the number of chambers delaying pupillages that were due to start in the autumn was likely to have a knock-on effect on the supply of places until 2022.
The annual report showed incremental improvements in the proportions of the practising Bar who are women (38.2%) and from minority ethnic groups (14.1%); the latter compares to the estimate of minority ethnic groups making up 13.3% of the working age population in England and Wales.
Within those figure, Asian/Asian British barristers made up 7.5% of the practising Bar (compared to 5.6% of the working age population), 3.2% were Black/Black British barristers (3.4%) and 3.3% were from a mixed/multiple ethnic background (1.5%).
Male QCs still outnumbered female QCs, but the percentage of female QCs increased from 16.2% to 16.8% over the year, and 8.1% to 8.8% of minority ethnic QCs.
Half of pupils were women, a drop of around four percentage points since 2019. “This may be an anomaly resulting from an exceptional year in 2020,” the report said.
The proportion of pupil barristers from minority ethnic backgrounds increased from 19.4% to 22.9% in 2020.
This is the highest proportion of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds, and the largest year-on-year increase in this statistic since the first diversity report in 2015.
Only 6.3% disclosed a disability, compared to 11.3% of the wider working population, although a large minority of barristers did not answer this question.
The proportion of UK-schooled barristers who attended a private school has been gradually trending downwards, from 39.6% in 2015 to 37% in 2020.
Some 47% of barristers said they were the first in their family to attend university.
The proportion of barristers with primary caring responsibilities for one or more children has increased significantly over recent years, reaching 14.5%, but this is far lower than the wider national average.
BSB head of equality and access to justice, Amit Popat, said: “While we are pleased to see that the Bar is increasingly diverse, there is still more work to be done to make the profession truly representative of society.
“As the regulator, we are committed to taking action to help achieve greater diversity. We are currently reviewing our equality rules, have published an anti-racist statement for barristers and chambers, and recently launched a pilot race equality reverse mentoring scheme to address cultural barriers to equality at the Bar.”