Silent sufferers? Bar’s efforts to improve harassment reporting failing

Harassment: Reporting dilemma

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) is to “reflect” on the duty on barristers to report harassment, with efforts to improve reporting proving ineffective, as it looks 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.

According to figures released on Friday, the BSB handled 15 cases relating to sexual harassment in the year to 31 March 2020, up from nine in each of the previous two years.

“Harassment and bullying at the Bar remain areas of real concern for the BSB and we will continue to develop our approach to eliminating this behaviour, both in how we can encourage people to raise their concerns and to support them when they do, and in addressing systemic issues with the culture at the Bar.”

Papers before last week’s meeting of the full board of the BSB said: “We are in the process of formulating new recommendations to help tackle bullying and harassment at the Bar, and we intend to engage with stakeholders – most likely including roundtables – about these during the first half of 2021.”

The board heard that stakeholders were split on the duty on barristers to report harassment (although the BSB’s policy is not to take disciplinary action against a victim for failing to report).

“While some stakeholders support the existing duty and think it is helpful in combatting inappropriate behaviour, others feel that the duty to report has a chilling effect, preventing victims from seeking advice and support within their workplace and decreasing the likelihood of them reporting harassment to the BSB.”

In 2018, the BSB put a system in place for pilot harassment support schemes, granting a waiver from the duty to report to groups of specially trained barristers who can support those facing harassment.

These are subject to certain conditions, such as appropriate training and anonymised record keeping that is shared with the BSB at regular intervals.

The aim was to provide the BSB with an evidence base to determine whether a change to reporting rules would be helpful or necessary.

The papers said: “While six of these pilot schemes have been established, unfortunately there does not appear to have been a marked increase in the reports of harassment received by the BSB, or any strong evidence to suggest that these schemes have been widely used.”

The Bar Council’s ‘Talk to Spot’ app – an anonymous reporting tool launched in September 2019 – “has also seen very low take-up”.

The board was told: “Reflecting on the duty to report will therefore be a priority in taking forward the anti-harassment agenda and we hope to issue a survey on this issue in the first half of 2021.”

In October, the results of a qualitative study commissioned by the BSB from YouGov recorded that some felt the lack of a formal management and HR structure at much of the Bar let harassment and discrimination “slip through the net”.

It said most of those who had been subject to this behaviour did not formally report their experience.

The duty to report was regarded by interviewees as both an enabler and barrier to reporting misconduct, and should be replaced by “a range of different reporting options”.

Amit Popat, the BSB’s head of equality and access, said in response: “It is plain from the study that there are significant cultural factors, including power imbalances, which inhibit the reporting of bullying and harassment.”

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