The Bar of the 21st century?

It is a Bar that aspires to be ‘of all and for all’. ‘For all’ in the sense of a profession which represents all without favour or preference. This is to some extent embodied in the cab rank rule. That this remains at the heart of the profession is clear. More challenging are the very real issues surrounding accessibility to the Bar and the courts, partly at least as a result of the radical denuding of our legal aid system and the introduction of enhanced court fees.

But here I want to focus on ‘of all’, meaning a Bar where anyone of ability can establish a practice and, with hard work and good luck – both of which are usually required – do so successfully, irrespective of background, age, race, religion, sex, disability and sexuality. It is important that the Bar is, in fact, such a profession. When I came to the Bar there was relatively little discussion about these matters. I was told in pupillage (back in 1992), that the Bar was about excellence and quality, a meritocracy. In this sense it was assumed to be a profession open to all. This view, perhaps, demonstrates an earlier lack of understanding of the barriers faced by many seeking to join our profession. Today things are much improved, but it would be naïve to assume that no barriers remain.

I am proud that on the whole this is a profession which values individuals and ability above all else, and that with this comes largely a good dose of tolerance. But I also know that, in common with other professions, there remain real challenges. For example, retention of women remains a concern as highlighted in last year’s gender research conducted by the Bar Council (Snapshot: the experience of self-employed women at the Bar). Similarly, professional progression of black and ethnic minority (BAME) barristers remains an area where much improvement is still needed. 

We are working closely with government, the judiciary and the other professional bodies to explore options to tackle this issue. Heavy university and BPTC debt, combined with the decimation of legal aid, threaten to reverse much good work on social mobility. Other challenges are more subtle and revolve around ensuring that the Bar, and those who work with us, including clerks and practice managers, facilitate an inclusive environment.

I participated in a recent FreeBar event in Birmingham, a new forum focused on LGBT+ people working at, and for, the Bar; a network of chambers, employers and individuals seeking to ensure that at the Bar, ‘Acceptance without Exception’ is real, tangible and a shared experience from the most junior to the most senior. Encouragingly, amongst the speakers was an eloquent junior barrister of a couple years’ call who stated that being openly bisexual at the Bar had for him, thus far, been a ‘non-issue’ and his experience had been ‘non eventful’. This is as it should be and I believe reflects much of the Bar. But I have also had people talk to me whose experiences were less positive, and in some individual cases shocking for the 21st century.

The Bar is not immune from thoughtless chatter and, occasionally, more serious and substantial problems and the Bar Council is clear on its role in providing support and advice to the profession.

A new offer of ‘Advanced E&D’ training, designed particularly for equality and diversity officers (EDOs) and those with a management role in chambers, includes training on the Bar Standards Board rules, fair treatment, policy development and complaints handling. It is proving popular. In addition, we run an active EDO network enabling those with management responsibility in chambers the opportunity to share good practice and experiences in tackling harassment and in supporting parental leave, flexible working, family and other career breaks. And of course, we are working in partnership with the Inns, Circuits and Specialist Bar Associations, to deliver wellbeing resources from September 2016, with launch events to be rolled out across all the Circuits. Please look out for these.

It is important that as a profession, and as individuals, we take responsibility for ensuring that the environment and the communities in which we work are tolerant and supportive of all, and enable talented, ambitious, aspiring barristers to be themselves, and to thrive. It means, as the Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said recently at the CBA dinner in the context of mental health week, looking out for each other. Or put differently, not taking each other for granted.

Contributor Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, Chairman of the Bar