Let us lead on equality, Bar Council chair tells BSB

Townend: Bar could be debilitated by duplication of effort

The chairman of the Bar Council has urged the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to let it lead work on improving equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the profession.

Sam Townend KC suggested that the regulator had its hands full with improving its own performance and that threatening sanctions as a way to improve EDI could be counter-productive.

In his speech to the Bar conference earlier this month, Mr Townend said the voluntary side of the profession – such as the Bar Council, circuits, specialist bar associations and inns – were working together on issues such the gender pay gap.

He noted that the BSB has supported these initiatives, provided data and, “rightly, largely stayed out of the way, something that I hope continues notwithstanding concerning references in their business plan to intended substantial changes in their approach on EDI”.

Explaining this to Legal Futures, Mr Townend said the BSB’s “core responsibilities” were conduct, authorisations and minimum standards.

“They’re coming from a place where they’ve been performing poorly to performing better but they’ve still got an awfully long way to go. That’s what they should be concentrating on.”

While the BSB “obviously have a role in relation to minimum standards”, he continued, “my concern is one of duplication of effort, of the Bar being potentially confused, if not debilitated, by having advice, guidance or something accompanied by sanctions”.

Earlier this month, the Bar Council named former Labour cabinet minister Harriet Harman KC as chair of its independent review of bullying and harassment at the Bar.

The BSB current business plan outlines its intention to consult on the recommendations coming out of its review of the equality rules, and particularly on whether to replace core duty 8 – ‘You must not discriminate unlawfully against any person’ – with more positive duty to ‘advance equality, diversity, and inclusion’.

It says: “This new duty would apply to every individual at the Bar and seeks to achieve a step change in behaviours and culture within the profession in relation to equality, diversity, and inclusion.

“Our hope is that it would act as a foundation on which to base the specific equality duties that apply to the management of chambers, whilst strengthening our ability to continue our ongoing work to address bullying, discrimination and harassment at the Bar.”

The BSB also recently published an anti-racist strategy for the next three years, setting out its “internal commitment to anti-racism in how the BSB operates with its people, outlining how we intend to lead by example by setting and meeting high standards in our own approach”.

It has developed a year 1 action plan to sit alongside the strategy, which will be monitored and evaluated progress by a new anti-racist implementation group.

Among the activities in the plan are developing inclusive language guidance, introducing compulsory race relations training, and using performance objectives to help create an inclusive organisation.

Professor Leslie Thomas KC, the BSB board sponsor for the strategy, described the strategy as “a pivotal framework in our ongoing mission to ensure equity and inclusivity within the legal profession”.

It was “imperative that the BSB leads by example, embodying the values of diversity and inclusion in all aspects of our work”, he explained.

“Our anti-racist strategy is not merely a document; it is a declaration of our unwavering commitment to fostering a workplace environment within the profession where every individual feels valued, included, and empowered to contribute meaningfully.

“It signifies our dedication to proactively addressing systemic inequities and biases that may exist in the profession and the broader legal community.”

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