‘I wear a scarf, I am a short, brown girl. I have felt out of place in court. I often walk into courtrooms and everyone is an older white man wearing a wig. It used to be intimidating, but I’m getting used to it. Through “Access to the Bar for All”, I can see that I am welcome here and that I am supported.’
So said Nazia Islam, one of the students in the first cohort of Garden Court Chambers’ Access to the Bar for All scheme. It is, we believe, unique among Bar access schemes in delivering long-term support to those who might never have considered a career in the law because it seems, frankly, like an alien world.
I don’t think I need to wheel out the statistics about diversity at the Bar. The deficit – though improving – is well known and the case (business, let alone moral) for diversity should not need repeating. So in this article I want to explain what impact our scheme has had to date and why other chambers should develop their own initiatives.
‘Access to the Bar for All’ isn’t just a one-off bit of work experience in chambers – it’s about a long-term commitment to help pre-A Level secondary school students navigate their way to the Bar.
It is focused: we offer full support for two students each from three schools in some of the most economically deprived areas of London – Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Greenwich. This was deliberate. As Hannah Dalton, head of sixth form at one of our partner schools, Oaklands, says: ‘There are very few schemes which recognise the many barriers young people can face when applying for the Bar, such as being closed out by well-connected, fee-paying contemporaries and the overwhelming costs of attending university and the costly Bar course.
‘Garden Court Chambers’ scheme is so good because it recognises that one-week-long shadowing schemes, which have become quite common across the legal field, have little impact in increasing diversity at the Bar because they do not address the issues young people from underprivileged backgrounds face.’
This is not just about gender and race. Although at least one from each school has to be a girl, and at least one has to be a person of colour, all participants have to live in an area with a high level of deprivation, be in receipt of free school meals and be the first generation in their family to go to university.
The scheme sprang from a recognition that students from backgrounds like this need our help. They have no experience in chambers, no contacts and no support. In a profession like ours, with all the inherent advantages that those from more privileged backgrounds enjoy, it is too simplistic to say that the cream will always rise to the top.
We run a formal recruitment process and the successful candidates receive mentoring from a barrister for five years and three weeks of paid work experience a year; two of them will receive a £7,000 scholarship to assist with living expenses for each year of university if they go on to study a law degree.
They learn about the profession first-hand over the years, by speaking to barristers, shadowing them in court, speaking about their cases, attending seminars and generally learning about life at the Bar. Being in the environment and growing comfortable with it is a critical part of the scheme.
We are currently mentoring our second intake of students, who are studying their A-Levels. The first group has just started their final year at university. The difference in their confidence levels since we first met them at 16 is striking. Some of it came naturally as part of growing up, of course, but they all acknowledge the benefit of the ongoing support they have received from their mentors and others in chambers – whether it was in applying for university, talking over the issues they face on campus or planning for a career in the law.
Obviously that is what we want to see. Although we are still at an early stage, these are young people who are now actively considering a career they barely knew of a few years ago. Some have said they feel there is a space in the profession that they never thought would be suitable for them.
We hope to expand what we are doing beyond London, to areas where some of our barristers live, such as Manchester or Liverpool. This is a ‘whole chambers’ effort, after all. The cost is spread across all members through the percentage of their earnings that goes into the Special Fund that Garden Court Chambers has run since its inception. This primarily makes donations to organisations working in defence of civil liberties and/or access to social justice.
What this also ensures is that members of chambers are invested financially as well as on a deeper level that is tangible through the positive interactions between tenants and mentees.
I would like to see the scheme – or similar initiatives – implemented across the Bar. Though some chambers have shown interest, to my knowledge, none have taken it forward. We would welcome conversations with the Bar Council and Bar Standards Board about how to do this.
Widening access to the Bar should be on every chambers’ agenda – not as an add-on or to tick a diversity box, but as something that is a fundamental part of their growth and future planning. All chambers have a responsibility to engage with improving diversity and inclusion.
Though the scheme has been widely recognised and won awards, ultimately it will only be a success story if it grows beyond Garden Court Chambers. Imagine if every set supported just one student through a law degree – that would mean over 350 students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds receiving the support they need to enter the profession.
We have a duty to make the Bar a place welcome to all. In my view, and I accept this may not be popular, the Bar Standards Board should make it compulsory for all chambers to create similar schemes backed by funding.
Of course, funding may be an issue for some, but that can be overcome by implementing the scheme on a smaller scale than ours. It is affordable and achievable for most organisations – indeed, for what it can deliver, the financial impact on most chambers is quite minimal so long as you have barristers willing to volunteer as mentors. Mentoring is not a one-way relationship. Our barristers have taken a great deal of pleasure in supporting their mentees and watching them blossom.
Di Middleton QC mentored Joey Liu, who grew up in a single parent family on an inner-city London council estate. She said: ‘It was amazing to see Joey becoming less and less self-conscious, and to give her proper hands-on help. I’ve seen her develop into someone gleaming with confidence. The Bar would be a better place with people like her in it.’