A barrister who overturned a Bar Standards Board (BSB) sanction for a tweet about Muslims that it said would cause offence is now suing the regulator for discrimination.
Jon Holbrook has issued an employment tribunal claim that he was discriminated against and harassed for his socially conservative views.
In his claim, he said the BSB and the Bar Council – also a defendant as the approved regulator, which delegates its regulatory functions to the BSB – “have published numerous documents that address the issue of diversity, as it arises under the Equality Act, but not a single one that recognises ‘philosophical belief’ as a protected characteristic”.
In January 2021, the barrister sparked a furious response on social media for tweeting that “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour”.
He was expelled from chambers on 1 February – although he said that he had in any case resigned four days before.
A Bar Standards Board (BSB) investigation into his Twitter activity then followed and led to an administrative sanction and £500 fine over one tweet (not the “stroppy teenager” tweet), which a panel found the ordinary reasonable reader would understand this to mean that the Muslim community was to blame for curtailing free speech.
“The panel considered this would not only cause offence but could promote hostility towards Muslims as a group.”
This decision was overturned on appeal in March on the basis that the panel set too low a threshold.
The Bar Tribunal & Adjudication Service tribunal said the “mere causing of offence” was not enough to damage public trust in the profession given the importance of freedom of expression; it needed to be more serious.
Mr Holbrook’s £3m discrimination claim against Cornerstone Chambers was thrown out in August for limitation reasons, a decision he is appealing.
The latest claim does not put a figure on the damages sought, but Mr Holbrook is seeking compensation for loss of earnings up until the age of 75 (he is currently 58), as well as aggravated damages, exemplary damages, and damages for injury to feelings.
He described his philosophical beliefs are “those of a social conservative in the manner of the late Professor Sir Roger Scruton”. In particular, he said he was “a critic of identity politics, now often referred to as a ‘woke’ ideology or ‘wokery’”.
Mr Holbrook claimed there were various examples of BSB bias, including some staff signing off emails with their ‘preferred pronouns’, which he described as “woke proselytising”.
On indirect discrimination, he argued that social media guidance the BSB issued in 2019 mis-stated the law or the basis for regulatory action as applied to a barrister’s use of social media “out of a desire to curb expressions of political belief particularly those made by the claimant and other critics, or perceived critics, of identity politics”.
He said the BSB directly discriminated against him by treating him less favourably because of his philosophical beliefs through the disciplinary moves it took, and further that its actions constituted harassment.
Mr Holbrook said he has not been able to earn an income since leaving his chambers, in part because of the time he has spent on his case and also because of the “stigma” it caused. An insurer refused to cover him, saying he would be “at a much higher risk of targets from potential claimants, given your political background and recent sanctions by the BSB”.
He claimed loss of earnings from January 2021, when he was 58, until his 75th birthday, when he had intended to retire fully, having done so partially on his 70th birthday.
Mr Holbrook, who is represented by Eastbourne firm Gaby Hardwicke, commented on his case: “The BSB is supposed to uphold the professionalism of the bar, yet it allows its role to be distorted by politics. In my case, the BSB became a tool of woke campaigners who sought to drive me from my chambers and the Bar.
“My claim against the BSB seeks to establish that it unlawfully discriminated against me for expressing my conservative beliefs. Belief discrimination at the Bar undermines the free-thinking and independence of mind that are supposed to be its hallmarks.
“Justice and our body politic depend on the right of lawyers to speak freely and publicly of their political beliefs.”
Both the BSB and the Bar Council declined to comment.