Black Lives Matter: in society, in justice and at the Bar

Amanda Pinto QC

At the Bar Council, we realise we have not been doing enough to encourage and support black barristers. More can and must be done to become a stronger and more inclusive Bar.

 

I speak, of course, as a white woman, but I could not write this column on anything other than the huge movement and collective action that has taken place across the world since the shocking killing of George Floyd. It certainly feels different this time, but only history will tell whether it truly is. To see broad swathes of society taking a stand by peacefully protesting and the widespread discussions in the media, workplace and online, from people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, professions and ages, adds to the sense that this is a pivotal moment providing an opportunity to tackle the longstanding injustices black people have faced.

Both as individual barristers and as an organisation that resolutely supports and upholds the principles of justice and the rule of law, we strongly reaffirm our commitment to the promotion of equity, diversity and inclusion both in the profession and the community we serve. As Baroness Hale, then President of the Supreme Court, said at the 2019 Annual Bar and Young Bar Conference: ‘Why do we need lawyers and the judiciary to be reflective of society? Because the rule of law is there to serve everyone and everyone must be confident that the law is there for them.’

In my inaugural speech last year, I spoke of three priorities, one of which was access to the profession. I have long spoken of the need for the Bar to reflect the society it serves and the need for the judiciary to be more diverse.

At the Bar Council, we realise we have not been doing enough to encourage and support black barristers. More can and must be done to become a stronger and more inclusive Bar. If we do not address this, we will fail to attract and retain those talented people who help to represent the whole society we serve.

Though the percentage of black barristers at the Bar has increased slowly over recent years, according to the Bar Standards Board’s June 2020 statistics, the proportion of barristers from Black/Black British backgrounds is 3.2% – slightly less than the proportion of Black/Black British individuals in the UK working age population (3.7%). Only 1.1% of QCs are from a Black/Black British background. This demonstrates the problem of sustaining professional lives throughout practice. And we know that black barristers are typically in practice areas which are less well remunerated and suffering more than their white colleagues from the impact of COVID-19. There are concerns that the extra risk they face from the virus is not sufficiently accounted for in the allocation of work. Progress is slow but change is happening.

Our Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility Committee is co-chaired by Sa’ad Hossain QC and Elaine Banton and run by Sam Mercer. Our existing diversity programmes for the Bar include measures designed to attract people into the profession such as e-mentoring for students. Once in practice, the Bar Council has the Accelerator Programme which includes promoting the fair allocation of work. If black barristers do not get the same opportunities as their colleagues in chambers – whether through instructions from solicitors, through poor clerking practices, through internal referrals or any other challenge – we will struggle to retain them in the profession. I am pleased that we are working with the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks to make real and lasting improvements in chambers’ allocation of work, to support enjoyable, sustainable careers for all at the Bar. We provide diversity and inclusion training and direct helpline support for barristers and chambers. We also support and work closely with the Black Barristers’ Network who are doing important work to support black barristers professionally and socially.

There is a continuing problem with diversity in the judiciary, particularly in the senior judiciary. In 2019 only 1% of all court judges declared themselves Black or Black British. The Bar Council is actively involved, with the judiciary, the Law Society, Cilex and others, in supporting talented lawyers from under-represented groups to feel more equipped, and confident when applying for a judicial role. Pre-Application Judicial Education (PAJE) provides practical help to those who might not have considered themselves a possible candidate to be a judge. PAJE sets out to address the phrase, ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’. Scales have been lifted from eyes and successful applications have been made following these accessible and popular courses. It is heartening for us to receive messages about appointments to the Bench from those who do the course.

Those measures are aimed principally at the profession as a whole, but I am keenly aware that the Bar Council itself must become more diverse if it is to be most effective. In pushing initiatives to help promote people from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds to progress their careers, we also aim to get better representation in senior leadership positions across the Bar. This includes challenging and changing the way we operate on the Bar Council: how we conduct business, how our Council is composed, how we encourage more participation on our committees by practitioners of every level and area of practice and how we attract, retain and progress diversity across all the Circuits. The Bar Council elections are coming up in the autumn. Please watch out for blogs by barristers about their experience of helping to make the Bar Council a better reflection of the profession.

We are planning to set up a working group looking specifically at the unique experience and challenges black barristers face at the Bar.

More broadly, as vital participants in the administration of justice in our country, we are uniquely placed to contribute to difficult conversations on the treatment of black people and to face the hard truths about the state of our own criminal justice system. We need to keep talking to and engaging with others to ensure that inequalities are addressed across the board and that black people are not denied equal protection of the law. If the Bar Council’s logo of ‘justice for all’ is not empty words, that is the minimum we must do.

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Amanda Pinto QC

Amanda is Chair of the Bar. She is a silk at 33 Chancery Lane.