BLAGG - Bar Lesbian and Gay Group

Hassan Khan and Claire Fox, Co-Chairs of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group, on expanding the remit of BLAGG.

Is it OK to be Gay at the Bar? Will the Bar Standards Board’s new Equality Rules make a difference?


In 2011, we became co-chairs of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group (BLAGG) which was formed in 1994 by a group of students at the Inns of Court School of Law. We now have over 300 members across the profession including students, pupils, barristers and Queen’s Counsel. BLAGG’s primary aim is to support lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender members, at whatever stage they are in the profession, whether or not they are ‘out’ or if they simply wish to socialise and meet fellow members of the Bar. We provide information, advice and support, particularly to those wishing to join the profession.


BLAGG’s remit

Since our appointment we have sought to expand the remit of BLAGG. We have a seat on the Equality and Diversity Committee of the Bar Counsel, we respond to Government’s consultations affecting our membership; most recently we have responded to the Judicial Diversity and Equal Civil Marriage consultations. For the last two years we have taken part in the Pride March whilst donning our wigs and gowns. We also hold a number of enjoyable social events each year.

Access to the Bar

An important aspect of BLAGG’s remit is to encourage applications from the LGBT community. How big is the community? In the recent survey, Barristers’ Working Lives, 3% of male respondents stated that they were gay, 1% of women stated that they were gay/lesbian, and 2% of respondents said they were bisexual. This can be compared with the projected percentage of gay people in the UK population which is around 6%. Of those 1-3%, it is unknown how many are open about their sexuality in chambers.

Is the 1-3% reliable or an under-estimate? In fact the Judicial Appointments Commission has suggested that they intend to obtain statistics on sexual orientation.  Currently there are no statistics available in respect of the numbers of LGBT persons applying for pupillage; how many of those applying are successful in gaining a pupillage; and of course, and vitally, how many go on to become practising members of the Bar. In this regard we canvass the prospect of working closely with other organisations, such as the Bar Council or specialist Bar associations, in a possible anonymous but compulsory survey of the Bar in order to gain a better insight into the numbers of LGBT people entering the profession.

Access to the profession by people from diverse backgrounds remains a key issue. It is being tackled head on by His Honour Judge Marc Dight QC, the Lead Diversity and Community Relations Judge. He takes his role very seriously and is charged with displacing any perception that the Bar is only for the most privileged in society, rather that it is open to all and that entry is entirely based on merit. We saw this in action at the UK Law Student Association event on 7th March 2012. We were pleased to be invited to offer advice to students on the pupillage application process and discuss our own experiences of life at the Bar.

Perceptions

Whilst it might be said that tenants who are open about their sexuality in chambers are unlikely to face discrimination from other members, our anecdotal experiences suggest that there remain concerns from those seeking to gain entry into the profession. Recently we spoke to students at the pupillage fair, some of whom expressed concern that being gay would present a barrier to coming to the Bar. Common questions included whether reference should be made in a CV or at interview to being involved in a ‘gay’ organisation. Others complained that there were not enough positive role models within the profession to provide them with the required inspiration to apply.

Perhaps the concerns of the students should not be discounted so easily when the reality is that many pupils are not ‘out’ in chambers. They may not be able to be open and honest about their sexuality in chambers for fear that it might count against them when their tenancy decision arrives. Speaking to many of our members this was a common theme. Indeed, the authors did not ‘come out’ during pupillage for the same reasons. It appears from a survey conducted by Interlaw in 2009/10, that solicitors had similar experiences. Although views are slowly changing, it remains a concern that pupils are likely to keep their sexuality quiet until they have an established place as a tenant in chambers. For some, even after obtaining tenancy and through fear of discrimination, they may still choose not be open about their sexuality. For example they may not disclose the fact that their partner is of the same sex or feel inhibited in inviting them to a chambers event.

It is not that LGBT people entering the profession as pupils or tenants wish to shout out ‘I am gay’ from the rooftops, rather they wish to be secure in the belief that if their sexuality is revealed, it will not be a reason to discriminate against them in the selection process or lead to the conclusion that they were not ‘the right fit’ for chambers. On a human level, sexuality is one part of a person’s identity and suppression of it can be burdensome and unfair.

We do not consider that the offer of pupillage or tenancy should be made other than on the grounds of merit and we do not support a system of positive discrimination. The Bar is of course a much more diverse place than it once was and attitudes are slowly changing, but at the same time, we ask ourselves, as established members of the Bar, whether we are doing enough to ensure that access to the profession is as open as it could be.

BSB Equality and Diversity Rules

Enter the proposed new Bar Standards Board Equality and Diversity Rules. Subject to approval by the Legal Services Board they will be implemented this September. Rules 305 and 408 will require every set of chambers to appoint an Equality and Diversity officer and implement an active equal opportunities policy. From 1 January 2013, the member with lead responsibility for any committee or panel responsible for the selection of members of chambers, pupils, clerks or assessed mini-pupils and at least one member of the selection panel, who may be the same person, must have received recent and appropriate training in fair recruitment and selection processes, except in unforeseen and exceptional circumstances. From 1 July 2014, every member of all selection panels involved in the recruitment of tenants, pupils, clerks and assessed mini-pupils must be trained in fair recruitment and selection processes. In addition each set of chambers will be required to collect diversity data in relation to chambers’ members and staff which would be required to be published by 31 December 2012. This may provide us with our first set of data to gain a clearer picture of diversity at the Bar.

Benefits of the proposals

BLAGG fully welcomes these proposals. The new rules will ensure that equality and diversity issues are at the forefront of the mind of interviewing panels and are likely to change the way candidates are selected and the structure of interviews. Importantly, it will send a clear message to prospective applicants that they will be treated fairly, and thereby increase their confidence in the process. Further, implementation of these rules will require careful scrutiny and monitoring to ensure that they are being complied with.

We propose that the role of the Equality and Diversity officer should be expanded to include a supervisory function. His or her remit will include ensuring that the new rules are complied with and monitoring chambers’ processes generally. In addition, we suggest the officer is also responsible for any concerns or complaints that a member of chambers might have in relation to any issue affecting equality of treatment.

Conclusion

We are confident that in time the discrimination that is perceived and/or experienced will diminish. We hope that aspiring and practising members of the bar will be judged on merit and merit alone. Until then BLAGG will remain active in giving a voice to and offering support to LGBT members.

Anyone interested in becoming a member of BLAGG can find out more about us by and our events by visiting our website www.blagg.org.uk or contacting our membership secretary at contactus@blagg.org.

Hassan Khan, 4 Paper Buildings and Claire Fox, Renaissance Chambers, Co-Chairs of the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group.

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