In May 1991 at the AWB’s launch reception in Inner Temple, the then Lady Justice Butler-Sloss welcomed this initiative to represent the interests of women at the Bar of England and Wales and spoke of her high expectations for women barristers of the future. Since then, her own professional achievements (she was already the first female Lord Justice of Appeal and went on to become the first woman President of the Family Division) and those of our three successive Presidents (including the first female Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, the first woman and youngest person ever to be appointed to the Law Commission, and the first woman appointed to sit in the Chancery Division) have inspired AWB members and their Chairwomen to seek the removal of obstacles in practice so that the best and brightest of any sex and of every background can hope and expect to achieve success at the Bar.

People often ask “Why do women barristers need their own association?” As this article should demonstrate, unfettered by deference to the politics of the Bar Council of the day, the AWB has been able over time to tackle from a different perspective difficult issues; work which, though initially affecting principally female barristers, has generated practical benefits for both male and female barristers and the justice system as a whole.

Twenty years of hard work

Since the stewardship of its first Chairwoman, Jennifer Horne-Roberts, the AWB has rolled up its sleeves in an often unpopular fight to tackle inequalities. It battled initially for an Equality Code for the Bar and subsequently for: codes which together prohibited discrimination, harassment and unfair allocation of work and made provision for appropriate parental leave; removing the patronage-based system of judicial appointments; and transforming the appointments process for Silk. Our former Chairwoman, Josephine Hayes, brought an action against the then Attorney General for indirect discrimination with regard to secret consultations in the selection process for Government work as standing counsel. The system was then changed. We have also commissioned research into the work of women at the Bar; advised and assisted the Law Commission and Parliamentary Select Committees to ensure real progress on equality and diversity initiatives; and supported many other committees, networks and organisations with similar ideals. One of the AWB’s most notorious campaigns was to push for the abolition of the rule that women could not wear trousers in court; it seems astonishing now that that prohibition was in place until the mid-1990’s.

Even this brief overview of the AWB’s work in the past two decades highlights very significant progress, with initiatives that have enabled both women and men at the Bar to thrive in a competitive yet hopefully meritorious profession.

Much work still to be done

There have been improvements at entry level to our profession, but the problem (at least at the self-employed Bar) of how to retain highly-able women, those who should be going on to become the QCs and judges of the future, remains. 31% of self - employed barristers are now women but only 11% of Silks.

Direct discrimination may have largely disappeared, but residual indirect disadvantages must be highlighted. Women are often still pushed towards a career in publicly-funded crime and family work. My male Inner Temple sponsor told me in 1998 that if I was not prepared to practise in family law, as a woman I had no hope of any other work at the Bar. Regrettably, anecdotal evidence indicates that such ridiculous views occasionally still prevail, which prevent career development across other specialisms. Cuts to fees in publicly funded work are having devastating effects on areas of work where women are disproportionately represented. In another example, anecdotal evidence also suggests ongoing unfair allocation by clerks of lucrative private work in some civil sets, with the result that women may struggle to flourish and to provide examples of professional success when applying for Silk and judicial appointments. Efforts are being made to check these reports against statistical evidence in civil work.

Our current campaigns

The AWB is committed to ensuring that its members, from law student to Silk, are permitted on an equal footing to enter and remain at the Bar, and are supported to progress through their career to achieve at the highest levels.

Starting with encouragement of our newest entrants, for example, we run a stall at the annual Pupillage Fair in Lincoln’s Inn and also a very popular annual Pupillage Applications Advice Workshop, where practising barristers give their time to advise students individually on their draft CVs and application forms.

Under the new Queen’s Counsel appointments system, women who apply are succeeding in greater numbers but only 16% of those applying in the 2010-11 round were female. Accordingly the AWB sought this March to encourage more women to think of themselves as realistic candidates for appointment and held an informal workshop with a panel discussion offering practical advice on making positive applications for Silk. Open to both women and men, attendees heard firstly from Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, a member of the Selection Panel, about the practicalities of the appointment process and then, inspiringly, from four women at the self-employed and employed Bar who recently took Silk. This was followed by a Q&A session answering queries about when to apply, the application form, competencies required, and associated issues.

Other work includes supporting nationwide workshops on judicial appointments and the Bar Council’s equality and diversity initiatives such as the “Managing Your Career Break” seminar; assisting with the efforts to establish a Bar Nursery; submitting papers to the BSB’s consultation on the proposed new Equality & Diversity Code and Practising Rules, and the House of Lords Committee’s call for evidence in its Inquiry into the Judicial Appointments Process; and representing the AWB at national and international legal conferences.

We also have a Mentoring Scheme for members, where volunteer Mentors practising at the employed and self-employed Bar offer informal advice and support on work-related issues such as obtaining pupillage or tenancy in chambers; starting out in practice; considering a move from the self-employed Bar to the employed Bar and vice-versa; combining a career with a family and structuring effective parental leave; moving chambers or changing specialism; and applying for Silk or a judicial appointment.

As reviewed in Counsel last month, we held another thought-provoking and controversial workshop at the annual Bar Conference on 5th November, moderated by our last Chairwoman, Kim Hollis QC. Baroness Deech, Mrs. Justice Theis, Jane McNeill QC and Nirmal Shant QC debated “A glass ceiling - can women achieve success at the Bar and progress to the highest levels?”, examining this issue from all angles and their own personal and professional perspectives. We will ensure that the remaining barriers to professional success identified by them and by our audience will inform our ongoing work. 

On 23 November in the House of Lords, France Burton (AWB Chairwoman 2001-2 and recently retired Tribunal Chair) gave oral evidence on our behalf to the Inquiry into the Judicial Appointments Process. Gratifyingly, several passages of our earlier written submissons were quoted with approval by members of the Constitution Committee during the session, and Frances pressed home our message that there should be no quotas or dilution of the paramount criterion of merit, but that the pool should be widened not least by broadening the requirements of appointees’ professional experience.

Our website contains details of our work, events and Mentoring Scheme: It is important to us that our initiatives continue to have a national impact; our Committee presently includes representatives from the Midlands, Northern and Wales & Chester Circuits, but if you would like to volunteer your assistance or suggest an event that could be held in your area, please get in touch.

Join the AWB

Membership is open to both women and men for a modest and tax-deductible annual fee: download an application form from our website and support our events however you can. This is vital work; the AWB needs you.