Rise in bullying and harassment complaints against barristers

Stone: People have trust and confidence in us

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has welcomed an increase in reports of bullying and harassment in the profession, saying the rise indicates growing confidence in how it deals with them.

It also reported a 20% rise in complaints over barristers’ use of social media.

In the year to 31 March 2023, the BSB received 30 reports of bullying and harassment, an increase from 17 in the previous year. Of these, 16 concerned sexual harassment, up from six in 2021/22.

The BSB’s annual regulatory decision-making (RDM) report said: “The numbers are small but each case sends a signal to the profession that such behaviour will not be tolerated… We are grateful for and humbled by the willingness of complainants of harassment, of all types, particularly sexual harassment, to engage with our processes through to their end.

“We recognise how stressful and challenging this can be, but their resilience has allowed us to have a few notable successes this year in securing findings against barristers who have acted wholly inappropriately.

“We hope that these successes will encourage others to report bullying and harassment and send a signal to those in the profession, who continue to believe that such behaviour is acceptable and will be tolerated, that this is no longer the case.”

At last week’s meeting of the BSB’s main board, members stressed that the increase in bullying and harassment cases should be seen as a positive.

Chair Kathryn Stone said: “The fact we have this number of reports shows that people have trust and confidence… and we are sending a message, with their support and courage, that this [behaviour] will not be tolerated at the Bar.”

Sara Jagger, director of legal and enforcement, said: “It’s a question of whether people can stay the course – it’s very difficult for victims.”

Bar Council chair Nick Vineall KC, present as an observer at the meeting, agreed with this and urged the BSB to ensure such cases were dealt with “an appropriate amount of urgency” in recognition that, unlike most conduct issues, “a perfectly good complaint can fail because of a certain amount of dilatoriness”.

Reports received involving social media rose from 85 (involving 33 barristers) to 102 (involving 41 barristers) in the year – the BSB’s new social media guidance only came into force last month.

Three cases of misuse of social media were referred for disciplinary action, with the board told that most complaints were at the lower end of misconduct, such as around inappropriate language, rather than more serious matters like online bullying.

The BSB said: “We acknowledge that healthy discourse on social media can be beneficial and can raise awareness of important issues.

“Even in situations where most may consider that the discourse has descended into an unhealthy realm, as a regulator it is only appropriate for us to interfere with the right of barristers to freedom of expression, as protected by article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Cases relating to conduct at work that was not related to the provision of legal services fell from 303 to 193.

The BSB’s performance against its targets was mixed and in part due to the backlog caused by cyber-attack on 14 April 2022 that for five weeks rendered its case management system and other key tools such as emails inaccessible. The regulator is currently working through an improvement plan demanded by the Legal Services Board.

The BSB took 25 cases to the Bar disciplinary tribunal in the year, of which 21 were found proved. There were nine disbarments and five suspensions.

As at 31 March, there were 14 more BSB-authorised entities than a year ago at 152, including 13 alternative business structures.

The RDM report said: “The chambers model of governance for self-employed barristers remains the leading approach and there is limited demand for more varied forms of structure.”

On training, the BSB said that, towards the end of the financial year, it began to receive an increasing number of reports alleging cheating in online exams.

“We are grateful to the Bar course providers who have worked closely with us on this matter. These are high stakes, professional exams that are the gateway to practice at the Bar and it is critical that the assessment process is secure and robust.”

Earlier this year, after initially stopping online assessments in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the BSB decided to stop all online assessments from August.

The RDM report also highlighted that a small number of pupils have had to take new ethics exam three times. “We would like to remind pupillage providers that they must be active and engaged in supporting pupils in sitting the ethics exam.”

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