Female barristers have urged the courts and chambers to take action to avoid the coronavirus crisis leading to “further and disproportionate attrition of women from the Bar”.
The Western Circuit Women’s Forum (WCWF) called for guidance issued by the judiciary during the pandemic to take into account the needs of lawyers who are carers.
The WCWF said: “The pandemic brings pressure to all self-employed barristers. Most chambers recently surveyed by the Bar Council have said they cannot survive beyond 12 months.
“A staggering amount of work has been undertaken across our profession to gather evidence, find solutions and offer guidance wherever possible to minimise the risk of the self-employed Bar disappearing.
“Our concern focuses on the primary carers, who are disproportionately women.”
A survey by the WCWF in January 2019 found that two-thirds of those leaving the Bar over a six-year period were women, the vast majority of them citing the difficulty of balancing work and family life.
In a follow-up report published yesterday looking at the impact of the coronavirus, it said: “Today Covid-19 working practices threaten further significant and disproportionate attrition of women from the Bar.”
It highlighted how the “unpredictability and delays” of remote hearings can put barristers with caring responsibilities in difficult positions.
One barrister said: “By the time I had waited 90 mins, my husband had had to start his work call and I had 2 children in tears (in the next-door room where I had asked them wait quietly).”
The WCWF said judicial guidance should include a requirement that judges invite advocates and parties “to notify the court in advance whether they have any childcare or other caring issues relevant to the hearing”.
At the start of hearings, advocates and parties should also be invited to “indicate if there are any childcare issues that might impact during a lengthy hearing and on future timetabling of a case”.
Judges would use that information to decide whether “reasonable adjustments” could be put in place to ensure a fair hearing.
These could include “clear boundaries regarding the time allocated to each case”; ensuring that, if a case is moved, enough notice is given for carers to “put other arrangements in place”; and ensuring advocates’ availability for future hearings was taken into account where possible.
The WCWF said “there should be no suggestion”, either expressly or implicitly, that “unavailability due to reasons of care-giving or shielding could be considered improper, unreasonable or negligent such as to expose the practitioner to a costs order”.
The report stressed that it was “more important than ever” that chambers carry out an “active review” of the distribution of work.
“It will be easier for those without caring responsibilities to take on last-minute work and work more, but care should be taken not to exclude from the new or last-minute work those with caring responsibilities.”
The WCWF said some forms of marketing, such as webinars, “may be impossible for those with childcare issues because of the additional work involved, or the time they are to be recorded or broadcast”.
Chambers should maintain “active communication” with barristers who have caring responsibilities.
“Their career is important to them and the support of chambers and clerks goes a long way to help them cope with daily struggles.”
A survey by The Next 100 Years last week found that female lawyers were worried that the coronavirus crisis was exacerbating inequalities in the profession.