“Significant increase” in barristers reporting bullying, harassment and discrimination

Walker: We must do much better

A third of women barristers, those from a black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background and disabled barristers have experienced harassment, bullying or discrimination in recent years, new Bar Council research has revealed.

There has been a “significant increase” in the number of barristers reporting both personal experience of these behaviours and witnessing it happening to others, with those in employed settings more likely to face them than those in self-employment.

The figures are in the latest release of data from the 2017 Working Lives report, the third such survey the Bar Council has conducted. The first two were in 2011 and 2013. Some 4,092 barristers responded to the most recent one.

The survey did not define what amounted to harassment, bullying and discrimination, so answers were based on barristers’ own perceptions.

Overall, some 21% of employed and 12% of self-employed barristers reported that they had personally experienced harassment or bullying at work in the two years prior to the survey, up from 18% and 8% in 2013.

Meanwhile, 16% of employed and 13% of self-employed barristers said they had experienced discrimination, up four and five percentage points respectively.

Nearly a third of employed barristers (30%) and sixth of self-employed barristers (17%) said they had observed bullying or harassment (increases of nine and eight percentage points respectively), while 20% of employed and 15% of self-employed barristers said they had observed discrimination in their workplace (compared 15% and 8% in 2013).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women (33%), BAME barristers (34%) and disabled practitioners (37%) were far more likely to face these behaviours than men (12%), white (19%) and non-disabled (19%) barristers.

In more than half of cases (53%), barristers reported that they were treated less favourably because of their gender, while in 21% of cases it was due to their age.

One in five (19%) reported less favourable treatment based on ethnicity, 12% due to pregnancy/maternity; 6% for both disability and religion & belief, and 5% based on their sexual orientation.

Criminal and family law were the practice areas where these behaviours occurred most frequently – 26% of criminal barristers said they had observed bullying or harassment – while they were least common in professional negligence, personal injury, commercial and chancery work.

The most common culprit was a colleague or another barrister in chambers, mentioned by 50% of those who reported experiencing harassment or bullying, and 47% of those who faced discrimination.

Some 41% of barristers who reported experiencing discrimination stated that a clerk or practice manager was responsible.

Also, 28% of those who experienced harassment or bullying, and 25% of those who reported discrimination cited their head of chambers, a member of their management committee or their manager as responsible.

Bar Council chair Andrew Walker QC said: “Over the last 12 months a spotlight has been shone on harassment and abuse of power, not just through international campaigns such as #MeToo, but also through those specific to our own profession, such as Behind the Gown – a campaign launched recently by barristers committed to tackling harassment at the Bar.

“The results [of this report] are a cause for concern and cannot be ignored. As a profession, we must do much better. We do not and will not tolerate harassment and bullying at the Bar.

“The Bar Council already offers a confidential helpline, training and other support to individuals and chambers. If any members of the Bar are facing harassment or being bullied, we urge them to use these services. We want to help.

“We are also working with the Bar Standards Board to ensure rules about reporting encourage chambers and others to call out and deal with unacceptable behaviour, rather than stay silent for fear of the consequences of speaking out.”

Possible changes to the rules on reporting form part of the Bar Council’s newly published work programme to deal with harassment and discrimination.

Last month, the Bar Standards Board itself published a 10-point action plan to work towards eliminating the discrimination, harassment and other unfair treatment of female barristers.

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