At first glance, analysing ‘class’ at the Bar might seem pointless. Traditionally, barristers have been associated with the upper end of the class system. Many prominent figures in British history – from politicians and aristocrats to writers and academics – have been connected with the profession. Plus, once a person becomes a barrister, it may feel like the uncertainty of class fades away.

Clearly, class is a complex topic. Still, even with its complexity, it deserves more attention. In this article, I consider the problems with the current approach to understanding class at the Bar. I suggest that we should talk about class and put aside other labels, such as the unhelpful category of ‘socio-economic background’. I look, in particular, at the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB’s) Report on Diversity at the Bar 2023 (published in January 2024) to propose how we might understand class in a more accurate way. In taking these steps, perhaps we can be more effective when analysing – and, ultimately, combatting – classism.

Recently, one of my students told me about a piece of advice that they had received when preparing for pupillage applications: ‘Lose your accent or you won’t be taken seriously at the Bar.’ The old chestnut has life yet and a number of articles* in recent years have discussed this theme, whether in the form of bias against accents, snobbery or money. However, references to ‘class’ and – especially – ‘classism’ remain rare. Unlike discussion of racism, misogyny and ableism, it seems that barristers, like many other groups, avoid the language of ‘class’ and ‘classism’.

Certainly, analysis of class requires care and nuance. I have written elsewhere about class as a potential protected ground in discrimination and criminal law.* It is a topic that deserves analysis and debate, but it is too often over-simplified or pushed aside. We must think about it, talk about it, if we are to tackle discrimination based on it. Yet, in the BSB’s report, class receives little mention. Why is that?

Why is class side-lined?

Broad factors are at play. One is a general desire not to talk about class. For some, class can be a threatening idea, one that might suggest undeserved advantage. Another factor is that people often view classism as distinct from ‘discrimination’. Classism is widely misunderstood as a problem of mere distribution: some people are rich, some are poor. That’s all there is to it. Even if people accept classism as a form of inequality, they fail to recognise how it can be a form of discrimination.

A third factor is especially important in the legal professions. Despite academic proposals and a petition to Parliament, class is not a protected characteristic under s 4 of the Equality Act 2010 (or under other legislation, such as those statutes making up ‘hate crime laws’). This means that diversity analysts frequently omit it. For example, analysts who follow the 2010 Act will adhere to s 4 and ignore class. Other analysts might include it, but only as something distinct from discrimination (and, often, as an afterthought).

Even those committed to improving equality and diversity tend to misunderstand class. The BSB’s report has a chapter on ‘socio-economic background’, which addresses issues that are unmistakably to do with class, such as parents’ educational status and the type of school attended. It, for example, acknowledges that the questions on socio-economic background are only ‘a proxy for determining a barrister’s social class’. Yet it does not use the language of class overall: instead, it favours the idea of ‘socio-economic background’ and chooses it as the chapter’s title.

This is unfortunate for analysis. Class is an idea distinct from socio-economic background. For example, race links with social experiences and economic status in our upbringing, especially in the UK where race and class often blend together. Commentators willingly give race the attention that it deserves without hiding it under the banner of ‘socio-economic background’. So, why not the same for class?

Consider an applicant for pupillage who might encounter interviewers who hold prejudices against the applicant’s regional accent. That is classist. It is not precise to call it ‘socio-economic’. It is not, for instance, an example of racism or ableism, both of which are ‘socio-economic’. Instead, it is a problem that comes from the prejudices of our class system.

Steps forward

For analysts of diversity data, the aim is to make the professional environment the fairest it can be. Two purposes are clear. First, that people are admitted to practise in a fair way, unimpeded by discrimination. Second, that people can develop practices in a fair way, unimpeded by discrimination. To achieve this, we can identify some steps.

1. Calling it what it is: class

If those are our purposes, it is important to be accurate about what we are analysing. When we examine ‘socio-economic background’, we are not trying to examine the influence that race, for example, has on a person’s socio-economic standing. Instead, we are trying to examine the features that make up their class status (whether now or in the past). So, just say that.

2. For barristers: providing data

Barristers should be better at providing data. In the BSB’s report, participants were more forthcoming about gender and age than schooling or parents’ education. On schooling, the report shows a high percentage of non-responses (38.1%). 6,959 provided no information and 580 selected ‘Prefer not to say’. On parents attending university, the overall response rate was 58.1%. 481 selected ‘Prefer not to say’ and 7,689 provided no information (the largest figure in the tables, apart from that for gender identity). This is a much lower rate of response than gender, ethnicity and age (but similar to the rate for caring responsibilities). The response rate only increased by less than 1% from 2022. If analysts cannot obtain the information, how can we make progress? Simply by answering questions, barristers can make a difference.

3. For analysts: more detailed questions

On the other side, analysts must also ask better questions. It will always be crude if we ask only about the type of school attended or whether barristers’ parents attended university, as the BSB did in its 2022 report. The BSB tried to address this in the 2023 version, but did not include the data on responses to new questions about free school meals and the occupation of the main household earner, due to a low rate of response. Here, the issue of better questions is interlaced with the importance of barristers providing the data. Building on this, useful questions could focus on the period between the ages of 11 and 18, a significant time for life choices and educational development. For example, during that period:

a. Where did you live? (Please provide the county or equivalent if your country was not the UK.)

b. What type of school(s) did you attend?

c. What were your parents or carers’ occupations?

d. What was the level of educational qualification of your parents or carers?

e. Do you consider yourself to have a regional accent?

f. Please provide any other information which you think is relevant to the question of class. For example, have you suffered discrimination due to class while a barrister or pupil barrister?

Inevitably, these questions are imperfect, but offer more than those the BSB has tried so far. That said, they can only be effective if barristers answer them.

4. A new project?

In addition to the questions, it may be the time for the BSB or the Bar Council to commission a report specifically on the topic of classism at the Bar. Such a report would provide the opportunity for both quantitative and qualitative data, rather than a survey with limited questions.

Indeed, in the BSB’s Enabling Strategy: Equality 2022-25, there is a chance to put a spotlight on classism. A ‘Classism Taskforce’ would prove useful alongside the existing taskforces for ‘Disability’, ‘Race Equality’ and ‘Religion and Belief’. Plus, an ethnographic method – talking to people, recording their stories, getting detailed examples from pupillage and practice – might encourage people to engage by making the topic more human.

In terms of admissions, a taskforce could investigate how much classism still operates in the process for Bar course scholarships and pupillage, and the day-to-day experiences of pupil barristers. Then, in the long-term picture, it could investigate how class-based differences affect success within the profession, such as quality of work, taking silk and earnings.

There is much to do. This is a complex area and my suggestions can only take us so far. That said, research into class and classism is overdue. Now, as ever, is a good time to start it. 

* Further reading

‘Perceptions of ‘accent prestige’’, Dr Jeremy Robson and Natalie Braber, Counsel, January 2023

‘Accent diversity at the Bar’, Dr Rob Drummond, Counsel, January 2021

‘People like us – at the Bar’, Hashi Mohamed, Counsel, April 2020

‘Accent bias’, Allan Briddock, Counsel, October 2019

‘The Big Gap in Discrimination Law: Class and the Equality Act 2010’, Alex Benn, Oxford Human Rights Hub, 15 September 2020

‘Classism as hate crime: Proposing class as a protected ground in criminal law’, Alex Benn, Criminal Law Review, No. 10, Oct 2011, 809-827 (subscriber access via WestlawUK)