The Legal Services Board (LSB) looks set to force legal practices to gather and publish equality and diversity data, despite concern that the policy could provoke non-compliance and create a false view of the profession.
At a roundtable discussion on social mobility at the Bar Standards Board’s recent monthly board meeting, the LSB’s chairman, David Edmonds, and chief executive, Chris Kenny, defended the policy of requiring publication by law firms and chambers.
The Law Society and Bar Council have both fiercely opposed publishing information at so-called entity level, fearing that even if data is anonymised, individuals could still be identified. The lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign group Stonewall has also warned that the sexuality of lawyers could inadvertently be “outed”.
The LSB is due to report this month on its consultation Increasing diversity and social mobility in the legal workforce, which closed in March. Its thrust was that forcing legal practices to be transparent about their make-up would encourage workforce diversity and help improve minority representation in the upper reaches of the profession.
The document proposed that legal services regulators should require firms and chambers to complete questionnaires to gather information on ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act – age, race, disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment, sex, pregnancy and maternity, and sexual orientation, plus socio-economic background.
At the BSB, Mr Kenny pointed out that there would be no obligation on individual lawyers to reveal the information that was being sought. Mr Edmonds underlined the point and described the process as “a self-classification”. The LSB’s 30-strong staff had filled in a questionnaire without issue, he added.
Several BSB board members responded that attempts at collection of sensitive data by colleagues, such as sexual orientation or religious belief, would lead to non-compliance and render the results inaccurate. There was a greater prospect of success if data was collected anonymously at BSB level and analysed to reflect the state of the barristers’ profession as a whole, it was argued.
Sally Hawkins, chairwoman of the BSB’s equality and diversity committee, said gathering and publishing data at chambers level “creates all kinds of problems in terms of the individual barristers and staff”. If data had to be collected, it should be confined to race, gender and disability, she said.
Mr Kenny said time would tell whether “going for publication at chambers’ level begins to really lower… compliance. My guess is that it won’t”.
BSB barrister member Matthew Nicklin said the results of data provided without obligation at chambers level would risk giving “a completely false impression”. Even at BSB level it would be hard to obtain accurate declarations, despite assurances of anonymity, “because people are not instinctively willing to share intensely private information with a faceless regulator”, he explained.
Patricia Robertson QC, also a barrister member, suggested that exactly who did the collecting of data would have a bearing on its accuracy. She also cautioned that if a law firm or chambers had a small number of minorities, they could be identifiable.