“Less talk, more action” needed to tackle female barrister crisis

Henley: Imagination, courage and a little humility will save us

There needs to be less talk and more action to tackle the “crisis” of female criminal law barristers leaving the profession, the head of the Criminal Bar Association has argued.

Chris Henley QC said women were facing an “increasingly hostile” working environment, and were choosing “easier, better paid jobs elsewhere”.

He was writing in his weekly newsletter and cited emails he had received from female members about their treatment by judges and by the system as a whole, and how difficult they made practice at the criminal Bar.

One mother of young children who raised childcare issues when the judge wanted to sit on until 5pm quoted him telling her “you should really think about whether the Bar is right for you”.

It was, the QC said, “little wonder that so many women (and men) are turning away from the criminal Bar; the environment is increasingly hostile”.

He continued: “The hours are punishing and unpredictable, often late into and sometimes through the night, the personal sacrifices are huge, fees are derisory, not remotely stacking up for the necessary childcare or breaks, and the treatment from all directions too often is very unpleasant.

“Is there another profession whose pay has fallen like ours, and who have to tolerate such awful and deteriorating working conditions?”

Mr Henley argued that there was too much talk about diversity – “I’m getting rather irritated by it” – while “nothing discernible” was actually happening.

“It is patently not being taken sufficiently seriously. Many of you are suffering, physically, mentally and financially.”

He said that, “behind the scenes at a senior level”, there were conversations about e-mail protocols, sitting hours protocols, and a determination to have zero tolerance for sexist and bullying behaviour.

“This stuff is not complicated, so let’s get on with it; I am assured the e-mail guidance will be issued very, very soon.

“I know there are many good people in senior positions who sincerely want to support you; they need to speak up.

“There are also many in senior positions who have never changed a nappy, had years of interrupted sleep, or the daily admin of kids, and who practised at a time when the work was plenty and the fees were ‘wow’.

“They all have a choice, to continue to manage an orderly decline and withering of the publicly funded profession or to fight for it. Imagination, courage and a little humility will save us.”

Mr Henley noted too that ambitious female practitioners were often “guided’” towards sex offence work – “surely the most gruelling, and no longer paid properly”.

He questioned how many women instead appeared regularly in heavy fraud, terrorism and murder trials, and went on to explain that their absence was in part because women were simply leaving criminal practice.

“The pattern is the same everywhere. There is a crisis. A quick glance at any criminal chambers’ website confirms it.

“Even the most successful junior women increasingly have had enough. They can get easier, better paid jobs elsewhere, where they will be supported, be treated with respect and where the conditions are flexible and compatible with family life. Most men want this too.”

He pointed to Women In Criminal Law as one organisation supporting and promoting women within the profession.

He added too that by no means all judges were difficult: “It is important to remember there are many, many sympathetic, flexible, progressive, modern judges who are just as appalled as us by this, who understand the pressures, and who respect and appreciate us.

“The deliberate squeeze on court capacity, and the threadbare support and general decay, makes their working lives intolerable at times too.”

A recent survey by the Western Circuit Women’s Forum highlighted the stark choices faced by women trying to balance working in private practice with looking after children.

Also last month, the president of the Family Division suggested that limits on how early or late lawyers can email each other may be needed to avoid burn-out given the “remorseless” pressure the system was under.

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