‘In careers advice at my school in Derby, the Bar didn’t really come up for anyone. They thought we’d more likely become typists, mill workers or hairdressers – which would have been disastrous with my hand-eye co-ordination. Later I saw the power of barristers to change the lives of vulnerable children in legal proceedings and experienced being cross-examined by them.

‘I have the most enormous respect for the Bar as a profession. We can all recognise the high professional skills brought to bear by many barristers. However, as regulator, we also have to ask whether the profession as a whole is effectively serving the public interest and we have to deal with the tiny minority of barristers whose standards or ethics do not match the profession as a whole.’

Kathryn Stone is telling me about her journey towards becoming Chair of the Bar Standards Board in September 2022. It’s a fascinating career, passing through spells as a social worker, chief executive of the charity Voice UK, the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors in Northern Ireland, a Commissioner for the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Legal Ombudsman for England and Wales and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Each role enhanced her experience of the work of the Bar. She is now also a non-executive member of the board of the Crown Prosecution Service.

‘As a child I spent lots of time with my police officer granddad. He told me he single-handedly saved Derby from the Germans in World War II. Later we found he owned a German handgun. He would always say to me: if you see something wrong, speak up about it. And I haven’t really shut up since! My school was a state school, an educational experiment. There was no uniform, no religious assembly; we called teachers by their first names. Although it wasn’t great for qualifications it was brilliant for developing a sense of social justice, and I have a good clutch of postgraduate level qualifications now. At age 15 a group of us were sent to help a coachload of people with profound learning disabilities. I was shocked by the lack of dignity afforded to them. They didn’t even have their own clothes – everything was in a communal box. I thought I had to do something about it. Ever since, my career has been about social justice, accountability and regulation. This job brings everything together. I meet incredible people. At our roundtables around the country we hear from barristers about their experiences. We are keen to welcome all, including members of the employed Bar, the young Bar and the specialist areas. Each voice around the table is important. Listening has been a key part of my career, including a lot of time spent listening to victims and families in Northern Ireland, where I learned not to let the voices of the few drown out the voices of the many. Barristers may be educated and sophisticated but they are still people and they still feel pressure. We need to understand them. As a regulator you have to take your people with you.’

The relationship with the Bar Council is ‘close, positive and constructive,’ she says. ‘We don’t always agree, but we never quarrel. We know our interests are different.’ One area of disagreement is over the size of the BSB’s budget from the Bar Council. ‘We know we need more in order to do our job properly, and our DG, Mark Neale, has recently written a blog on this.’ 

She joined the BSB board in 2018 and so had four years’ experience of the BSB before becoming chair. But ‘being chair gives you a different insight and responsibility’. In the year she stepped up to the chair there had been a critical report on the BSB from the Legal Services Board. The BSB was assessed on five areas and given a red traffic light (‘insufficient’) on two (‘Well-led’ and ‘Enforcement’) and amber on the others. One of her first challenges would have been to shift the lights off red. Did she disagree with the LSB’s assessment? ‘We have to be as respectful of the LSB as we want the Bar to be of us. We might, however, disagree with the LSB on particular issues – its views on holding money, say, where we consider the risks for barristers aren’t the same as for solicitors; also on our policy of not immediately pursuing barristers involved in the Post Office scandal while the public inquiry is still sitting.’ Is the BSB considering any such cases at the moment? ‘All I will say is that we are watching the public inquiry very closely. We have to act as a trusted and respected regulator on what we consider to be the best interests of our profession.

‘We have recently reviewed our end-to-end processes. Top of our agenda is the timeliness of our decision-making in our enforcement work. Productivity has improved significantly, although performance against our absolute timeliness targets can appear to suffer as we clear the backlog of older cases. But if you look at the productivity levels in assessment, authorisations and investigations they are all on the up.’

The BSB sends me the figures. The initial Assessment Team assessed 911 reports in the first half of 2023-24 compared to 1,582 in the whole of 2022-23; the Authorisations Team dealt with 240 applications in the second quarter of 2023-24 – the highest total for a year; and the Investigations Team reduced its caseload from 178 at the beginning of the third quarter of 2022-23 to 90 at the beginning of the third quarter of 2023-24, concluding 117 investigations in the third and fourth quarters of 2023-24.

‘This is not at the expense of quality,’ she is quick to clarify. ‘Our board acts as a friend and critic in equal measure towards the executive – we hold them to account, and we expect them to deliver. One of the privileges of my job is to thank and compliment them when things go well. We have brilliant people here who are committed to their work – liaison, policy, enforcement, training and education.’ She enthuses about the BSB’s work on Bar training with the valuable support of Professor Mike Molan and she recalls experiencing the Inns’ training at Keble College where ‘experienced barristers are giving their time to help younger ones sharpen their advocacy skills. Our staff were understandably dispirited at the LSB’s assessment but they have pulled out all the stops to turn our operational performance around. It’s not about quick wins and it’s not our philosophy to just scrape through. The LSB returned for another assessment at the end of 2023. We were able to tell them that we were moving in the right direction, although we know we still have some way to go to meet our own obligations of timeliness and productivity.’

The topic of bullying and harassment at the Bar was featured as the cover story of Counsel in July 2023. ‘Nick Vineall KC [the 2023 Bar Chair] was clear that it will not be tolerated at the Bar. We have been working with chambers to call out individuals. There is now a greater willingness for people in society to talk about their ‘lived experience’ of discrimination – for example, Black Lives Matter – and we take it incredibly seriously. We are committed to the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion [EDI]. Enormous strides have been made, but improvements for women and people of colour drop off as they become older. We want to see our ambitions for them changed into reality. I want to be part of that. I couldn’t work for an organisation where the commitment to EDI was tokenistic and I am proud of what we do to promote EDI as a board and among our workforce.’

What about social mobility? ‘Here I am! No one would have anticipated someone like me becoming chair of the board with a proud Derbyshire background and accent.’ She still lives there. As someone who used to watch Derby County she was once given a coaster to put on her desk in Parliament. It asked: ‘What would Brian Clough do?’ ‘I would always put something on top so it wasn’t visible. I wouldn’t recommend his leadership methods!’ [Clough on people who disagreed with him: ‘We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right.’] My ambition is rather to take people with me.’

Having been on the end of some ‘utterly vile things’ that were said about her when as Parliamentary Standards Commissioner she was making findings against many MPs, including Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer, she guards her privacy carefully. ‘No one likes a referee.’ She has three children and grandchildren on whom she dotes; and she cheerfully admits to binge-watching TV crime dramas.

One of the actions that have ‘come from listening at the roundtables’ is a review of the BSB Handbook. ‘It’s all but incomprehensible, not a good shop window as an exercise in communication. Communicating isn’t over when you write something but when it’s understood – and understood the first time you read it. This will take time but it’s a high priority for the next few years.’

Advice to those starting out? ‘I once worked with a young woman who wanted to become a barrister. We adjusted her working pattern to help her with her studies and of course we talked a lot. She was brilliant and won scholarships and awards. In 2017 she sent me a photo of her call night and added “I am here thanks to you.” But it was all down to her determination, her courage and the hours she put in to achieve her ambition. She now works on the Northern Circuit. And recently I was at a call night at Gray’s. I saw a profoundly moving moment – the pride and emotion of a family who had come on a rare trip down to London to support their daughter at her call. That’s why I love doing this job. I love learning about the people and being part of a cultural shift to a more inclusive Bar.’ 

This interview was held prior to the Bar Standards Board publishing the Fieldfisher review of its enforcement system on 12 April 2024. You can read the report in full on the BSB website.