Almost 90% of the self-employed barristers on government legal panels are white, a report by the Bar Council has found, urging the government to take action.
The “unmistakable lack of ethnic diversity” is worst at KC level, where three out of the 77 panel silks are Asian men, with no other ethnic diversity.
Black barristers are particularly under-represented, making up only 47 or 1.5% of the over 3,000 barristers on the panels, with Black men making up 0.5%.
Asian barristers make up 5% of the barristers on the panels, considerably less than the working age population in England and Wales of over 8%.
In contrast, barristers from mixed ethnic backgrounds are over-represented at 3.7%, around twice the proportion in the working age population. White barristers make up 89% of panel members.
The research covered the Attorney General’s civil panels, Treasury counsel, Serious Fraud Office counsel panels and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) advocate panels.
“Being appointed to a panel is a reasonably assured source of reliable work for a period of several years,” the research said.
“It is also a visible indicator of a barrister’s standing in their profession and can support them in other career development opportunities.
“It is clear that barristers from some ethnic minority communities and backgrounds are, for reasons that need further investigation, currently not accessing this valuable source of work.”
The Bar Council said seniority was “inversely correlated with ethnic diversity on panels”, with some representation of all ethnic groups at junior levels, which “progressively declines” as more experience is required.
Even when representation appeared healthy on a panel, the numbers involved were “so small that one or two individuals leaving a panel would result in there being no diversity”.
The lack of representation “has serious implications for the ability of Black, Asian and mixed or other ethnicity self-employed barristers to access one potential route to developing sustainable practices”.
Compared to their representation at the Bar, women barristers featured in “roughly equal” numbers on government panels, and were “over-represented” at KC level, making up almost a quarter of KCs – 16% of all KCs at the Bar are female.
But the Bar Council said earlier research on income had shown that fair work allocation was a “key challenge” for women on some panels.
The Bar Council noted that many government panels did not record the ethnicity and sex of their members, although notably the CPS’s were more representative of the Bar. In 2019, the CPS and Bar Council entered into a data-sharing agreement to analyse diversity on the CPS panels and earnings by sex, an initiative later expanded to all under-represented groups.
The report’s main recommendations were that the government monitor the pool of applicants and the appointment process for panel selection by protected characteristic, along with work allocation and income within panels, and publish the results within the next 12 months.
Mark Fenhalls, chair of the Bar Council, commented: “The findings of this report act as a stark reminder that work still needs to be done to ensure equality of opportunity at the Bar. Government legal panels have a key role to play to ensure that career advancement is open to all.
“We know from our work with the CPS that effective work is underway to address the disparity between men and women at senior levels, and we are keen to see this good practice on diversity spread across all government panels.”