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Review of sanctions for barristers guilty of sexual misconduct underway

Harassment: New guidance to be published in summer

The sanctions imposed on barristers found to have engaged in sexual misconduct are within current guidelines – but those guidelines are being reviewed, the Bar Tribunals Adjudication Service and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) said today.

The statement has been issued in the wake of a series of rulings by disciplinary tribunals where the sanctions imposed have been criticised as lenient.

They include the case we reported in depth yesterday of Dominic Woolard, who grabbed a younger female colleague by the neck and whispered suggestively into her ear, then smacked her on the bottom and tried to pull her onto his lap. He was reprimanded and fined [1].

Also this week, Craig Tipper, who touched two individuals sexually, was suspended for three months [2], although the full reasons have not yet been published.

In November, a senior government barrister, who was one of the first people convicted of ‘upskirting’, was banned for six months [3].

The statement said: “The Bar Tribunals Adjudication Service and the Bar Standards Board are aware of current concern from the public and the profession at the level of sanctions imposed in cases of sexual misconduct.

“The sanctions imposed fall within the current sanctions guidance. This guidance covers the whole range of professional misconduct and has been under review since last year.

“Proposals from the review will be published and subject to consultation with a view to having updated guidance in place in the summer.”

A Bar Council spokesman said: “The outcome of BTAS decisions will be focused on the specifics of each hearing. However, it is equally important that there is confidence in the system and that victims of sexual harassment can be sure that sanctions reflect the seriousness of such inappropriate behaviour.

“We therefore welcome the review of the sanctions guidance and hope the outcome reassures the Bar and those who work with the Bar.

“We also hope the sanctions act as a deterrent and play an important part in eradicating sexual harassment which has no place in our profession.”

The current sanctions guidance – which was only last updated in October 2019, the fifth update since its launch in 2014 – says the starting point for “minor offences of inappropriate sexual conduct in a professional context” should normally be a reprimand and a medium-level fine, to a short suspension.

The BSB recently said it was going to “reflect” on the duty on barristers [4] to report harassment, with efforts to improve reporting proving ineffective, as it looked at new measures to tackle bullying and harassment.

There has been little use of the Bar Council’s ‘Talk to Spot’ app or of the pilot harassment support schemes approved by the BSB. The regulator handled 15 cases relating to sexual harassment in the year to 31 March 2020, up from nine in each of the previous two years.