The killing of George Floyd and subsequent rise of ‘Black Lives Matter’ has forced a spotlight to be shone not only on the lives of ethnic minorities in America, but on these shores too. For some, it has proved to be a rude awakening but for many others it has simply reaffirmed the fact that decades after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson Report, very little has changed for people of colour, living in the UK. From the State orchestrated ‘hostile environment’ that sought to rob the Windrush generation of their rights of citizenship, to the lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs in the city, the media and government. In short, people’s sense of anger and frustration has been heightened by the fact that, after all these years of promises that changes were going to come to the lives of minorities in the UK, here we are at the start of 2021 and it is painfully clear that real change has still not arrived.

The legal profession has also not been immune from criticism. In 2017, The Lammy Review highlighted that the lack of trust in the criminal justice system by ethnic minorities stemmed from the fact that people of colour were so underrepresented within its ranks.

What is clear is that, right from the start of a legal career, the odds are very much stacked against people of colour. You will in fact be 50% less likely to be selected for a pupillage than your white counterpart. Even if you beat those odds, if recent reports are anything to go by, you may have to then deal with microaggressions, bullying and blatant racism. Junior barrister Alexandra Wilson told of being mistaken for a defendant at court, three times in the same day. Furthermore, a survey regarding earnings at the Bar, showed that ethnic minorities are amongst the poorest paid in the profession and no wonder, given the experience of barrister Paula Rhone-Adrien, who spoke out about solicitors asking for a reduction in fees, simply because she was Black (‘Clients demanded cut in fees because barrister was black’, The Times, 4/10/20).

The Black Barristers’ Network Survey of 2020 found that judges are ‘most likely to discriminate against Black barristers’. Fifty eight out of 100 barristers surveyed said that they had been ‘patronised, belittled or undermined’ on the basis of race. In addition, the 2020 judicial and legal profession diversity statistics confirm that if you are Black, you are 59% less likely to become a Recorder than your white counterpart. Little surprise, therefore, that Asian or British Asians make up only 4% of the judiciary and Black people a lowly 1%. These figures are likely to fall even further, if the government gets its way and increases the current mandatory retirement age of the judiciary to 72 or even 75.

Even if you were one of the fortunate few to reach the benches, don’t necessarily expect a warm welcome. A recent article in The Times stated that non-white judges have been made to feel distinctly unwelcome by some of their judicial colleagues, once they have attained elevation.

The NEC Diversity Outreach Programme

However, notwithstanding this seemingly bleak picture, many people from across the profession are determined that the longed-for changes are finally going to come. Over 100 barristers on the North Eastern Circuit (NEC) have banded together and created the NEC Diversity Outreach Programme. This group is dedicated to increasing diversity on circuit and has instigated a number of initiatives, in order to achieve lasting change.

Following a written request from the Leader of Circuit, Richard Wright QC, all heads of chambers have signed up to implementing the Bar Council Framework Document for Positive Action. This document provides practical examples of how chambers can increase the numbers of candidates with protected characteristics (such as race, gender, disabilities) while adhering to equality legislation. The documents are a ‘must read’ for any chambers who are serious about redressing the imbalances, not just in the diversity of pupils and tenants, but also within chambers support staff.

The NEC has also instituted a programme of outreach work at local schools and colleges. The initial plan for barristers to visit students and give talks about their individual journeys to the Bar had to be abandoned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and has been replaced by a video media resource, consisting of a compilation of barristers telling their individual stories about their journeys. This media package will be sent out across the Circuit in the hope that it will inspire the next generation of applicants to believe that the Bar is a place that encourages diversity.

It is also well known that one great inhibitor to a career at the Bar, is the financial cost. The NEC has sought to address this by adding a modest additional levy to Circuit subscriptions, which has generated a significant pot of money that can be used to help fund law students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Perhaps most importantly, however, has been the recognition on the NEC, that encouraging minorities to come to the Bar and even helping them financially will be a wasted effort if candidates are not fairly assessed at interview. Currently, a white applicant for pupillage is over twice as likely to succeed than a candidate from an ethnic minority. The reality is that the lack of diversity hitherto has been perpetuated by the temptation to recruit in ‘one’s own image’ and it is therefore essential that there is proper training of those who will be interviewing candidates in the future. This is because no matter how well-meaning practitioners are, many are simply not aware of the unconscious bias that affects us all to some degree. The NEC has therefore arranged diversity training, with speakers from all ages and walks of life, telling of their specific struggles to succeed as ethnic minorities in their chosen fields, and also explaining what it is like to attend interview after interview and never see anyone from an ethnic background on the selection panel.

The hope is that this kind of focused training will encourage recruiters to reassess their own value systems and not award points on the basis of achievements only when compared with the achievements of the assessor, but to award it on the basis of the achievements in the context of the life of the candidate themselves. After all, someone who was brought up in care, or is from a poor domestic or financial background, or a single parent working part-time, has arguably achieved as much, if not more, than a middle-class candidate who went to very good state school or was educated privately. The NEC has therefore asked interviewers on circuit to also undergo unconscious-bias training, in order to make sure that proper recognition and credit is given throughout the pupillage interview process.

So, perhaps the time has now come when we all take responsibility both as single practitioners and as Circuits to actively participate in ensuring that lasting change does finally come to this great profession. 

For more information about the initiatives being deployed by the NEC please get in touch with Glenn at: