In March, I was at the Royal Courts of Justice to welcome the new Attorney General and the new Solicitor General, on behalf of the Bar, as they were sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice.

As I said in my remarks at the ceremony, I was in the unusual position of welcoming a new Attorney General while wishing his predecessor a return to office in the near future. That was because Parliament has now made provision under the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 for senior ministers, who are about to become mothers, to take time off for maternity leave. The Act was not only bespoke in its origin, rushed through to cover the maternity leave of the departing Attorney General, but attracted controversy on its passage through Parliament. The original use of the term ‘person’ did not find favour in the Upper House and was replaced with the more obvious reference to ‘mother’. Despite this hiccup, the Act is an important milestone.

Under the previous rules, the Attorney General would have had to resign her post if she had wanted to take leave or would have had her ministerial duties split between other ministers rather than having a full-time replacement. That result would not only have been blatantly unfair but also out of step with working life in the 21st century. According to figures published by the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of working mothers with dependent children now exceeds 75% and has been rising steadily in recent years. The recognition by Parliament of this changed working landscape and the need to ensure that having a young family is not incompatible with senior roles in government or opposition is only to be welcomed. It was fitting perhaps that the swearing in of the first Attorney General to undertake the role as part of arrangements for maternity cover should have taken place in the same week as International Women’s Day and in Women’s History Month. It is to be hoped, as has been intimated, that further and broader legislation to address paternity or shared parental leave and adoption leave for members of Parliament is planned.

Our own profession also has issues to address. While men and women now embark upon a career at the Bar in equal numbers, there remain significant challenges to career progression. The QCA has made two grants available to the Bar Council over a period of two years, 2019 to 2021, to develop programmes and support that might enable and encourage more women to successfully apply for silk.

The first phase of this programme, captured under our ‘Modernising the Bar’ campaign, finished in early 2020 and involved extensive research to find the barriers to women’s retention and progression. The second phase, which is ongoing, involves some nine projects designed to address the challenges identified:

  1. First Seven Years (Better support for the young Bar, particularly in practice development);
  2. Practice Management Guidelines and Standards (Improving practice management including allocation of work, fees and marketing);
  3. Legal Directories (Ensuring the directories accurately reflect the breadth of talent across the Bar);
  4. Client Briefing Practices (Tackling discrimination in the way barristers are briefed);
  5. Mentoring (updating and delivering mentoring guidance and training and exploring options to support stakeholder-based mentoring/matching via MyBar);
  6. Flexible Working (modelling flexible working across the Bar);
  7. Women in Law Pledge (promoting uptake);
  8. Tackling Sexual Harassment & Bullying (continuing to promote use of resources like Talk to Spot etc); and
  9. Culture Change.

Of course, no single intervention will address the challenges faced by female members of the profession. The Bar Council is committed to sustained long-term activity across all the areas identified, beyond the life of the initial QCA grant. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even more challenging for women and other underrepresented groups at the Bar, particularly in publicly funded practice. Despite the difficulties of the last year, progress across many of the nine projects has been made but it is depressing that in 2021, tackling sexual harassment remains one of the issues that emerged from the initial research and found its way onto the list.

On the day before I attended the swearing-in ceremony I, and Elaine Banton, the Chair of the Bar Council’s Equality, Diversity & Social Mobility Committee wrote to the Bar Standards Board and Bar Disciplinary Tribunal to express concerns about the handling of harassment cases and to ask for further information about the investigation and sanctions process as part of the BSB’s sanctions review. I know that both of those bodies do want to make progress in ensuring that harassment is recognised as unacceptable and a serious disciplinary matter.

Although the Bar Council’s programme of work in this area has confirmed that old problems have not gone away, it also identified an appetite for change. More recent events have shown that wider changes in society around the same issues are also overdue.