As the country emerges from the pandemic and in person events return, the last few months have been a busy time. As the Bar Council has done for many years during September and October, we attended the major party conferences. Together with the Law Society, we made the case for greater investment in our justice system and had the opportunity to speak face to face with those who govern us, or aspire to, and the parliamentarians who make our laws. It brought home to me that there are many conversations, particularly uncomfortable ones, that require everyone to be in the same room.

On the topic of getting back to real conversations, the Conservative Party conference in Manchester also offered the opportunity to visit the Northern Circuit. Over the course of two days, accompanied by the Chair-elect, Mark Fenhalls QC, I was able to drop into ten sets of chambers in Manchester and Liverpool as well as visiting local courts to speak to judges and court staff. Having started my practising life mostly on Circuit, outside London, I have looked forward to these visits over the course of this year and found them to be enormously valuable. A particular pleasure for me was the chance to catch up with Winston Hunter QC. Winston is the chair of the Northern Circuit’s race working group, set up at the invitation of the Circuit Leader, Lisa Roberts QC, and the Circuit’s executive committee. The group recently published its report addressing the present position and the steps required to promote a diverse, inclusive and representative membership of the Circuit affording equality of opportunity to persons from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds. The report’s conclusions are uncompromising and challenging. A core finding is that ‘the Northern Circuit, especially with the majority of practitioners based in the cities of Manchester and Liverpool does not at present reflect, in terms of ethnic representation the population it serves.’ As its authors comment, ‘their findings relating to the Northern Circuit may well be common to other Circuits. There is no reason to assume that the diversity concerns identified in this report are greater on this Circuit than any other.’

While there are regional variations in the composition of the Bar by ethnicity, I know that the other Circuit Leaders I speak to regularly would agree with this summary. As you might expect the report did not simply expose and highlight problems; it concludes with 17 recommendations for practical steps to improve the numbers of applicants from ethnically diverse backgrounds, as well as the prospect of successful applications and the retention of those who become barristers. Although I have highlighted the work done by the Northern Circuit, it mirrors similar reviews undertaken by other Circuits, the Inns of Court and specialist Bar associations, as well as individual sets of chambers.

As I write we are in Black History Month, a month-long celebration of the achievements of Black figures in the past through to the present day. When the then President of the United States, Gerald Ford acknowledged the awareness month for the first time in 1976 he called on Americans to ‘honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history’. Reflecting on the past should also lead us to consider what the future holds and what we need to do to shape it. I am often asked what the Bar Council is doing. It is fundamentally the correct question; many of the problems are now well understood and will not be solved by saying more about them. We need to turn our attention to a practical action plan.

We have now completed the first part of the Bar Council’s Race Summit. At our next event on 5 November at Middle Temple Hall, we will launch the Bar Council’s Race at the Bar report. It will feature recommendations and findings from roundtable discussions held by the Bar Council with more than 80 Bar leaders, including chambers’ equality and diversity officers, heads of chambers and leaders of race equality networks. Those recommendations will form the foundation of our efforts to tackle race discrimination in the years to come in partnership with many other organisations and bodies within the Bar and more widely. We will also continue to work actively with the judiciary through the Judicial Diversity Forum to address the need to have a more diverse and representative body of judges in our courts.

I have previously drawn attention in this column to the intersection of issues of race discrimination and equal opportunity with social mobility. We have recently announced our Bar Council ‘I am the Bar’ social mobility advocates for this year. Each of their stories is inspiring and I encourage you to read them. For me one stands out, perhaps, that of Peter Eguae, a member of my own chambers. Peter’s story is extraordinary, from ward of court, fostered in six homes to the Bar. He described aspiring to the Bar as ‘like starting the London Marathon from somewhere in Cumbria’. A feature of his journey is the encouragement and advice he received from other members of the Bar along the way; some of it, such as that from Matthew Ryder QC, both pivotal and wise. It reminded me that the struggle for greater diversity and inclusion in our profession is one to which we can contribute personally as well as collectively. I hope I will see some of you on 5 November and later in the month at the Bar & Young Bar Conference.