The lack of representation of those with disabilities at the Bar was brought into sharp relief by the Bar Standards Board’s most recent report on Diversity at the Bar 2020. The Office of National Statistics estimates that 11.3% of the employed workforce has a declared disability. The BSB’s statistics show that only 6.3% of barristers who provided information on their disability status disclosed a disability. This is 5.3% of pupils, 6.6% of non-QC barristers, and 3.4% of QCs. These figures suggest a marked underrepresentation of those with disabilities at the Bar. The figure for silks is particularly disappointing and suggests that those with disabilities encounter very real barriers to progression.

It is right to say that the Bar needs to do more to get its house in order. However, much also needs to be done by the judiciary and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). One of the perennial issues raised with the Bar Council’s Disability Panel is the problem of access to courts. The other is the sometimes-hostile attitude of some members of the judiciary towards making adjustments in order to accommodate barristers with disabilities.

For example, to be fully accessible to professional court users with physical disabilities, court buildings, inter alia, need:

  • disabled parking;
  • accessible toilets;
  • lifts, if courts are not on the ground floor;
  • hearing loop systems;
  • to be accessible for guide dogs; and
  • to be designed or adapted to allow wheelchair access.

In May 2019, Lord Keen of Elie (then a minister in the Ministry of Justice), responding to a written question from former Home Secretary, Lord Blunkett, said that 31 of the then total of 56 court and tribunal buildings in Greater London were inaccessible to disabled court users. Among those courts, two were temporarily unavailable due to broken lifts. In one, the lifts had been broken for more than one month.

One year on, in May-June 2020, the law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp used data on HMCTS’s Court Tribunal Finder to assess how many courts and tribunals in England and Wales were fully accessible to disabled court users. The results of its investigation were very disappointing. Only eight court buildings were found to meet all accessibility criteria. From HMCTS’s own data, it appeared that only 15% of courts in England and 29% of courts in Wales were fully accessible for wheelchair users.

Even where courts are notionally accessible to disabled court users, such users are often put at an extreme disadvantage compared to other court users. In some courts, advocates in wheelchairs may end up having to address the court from the gangway adjacent to, and not from, counsels’ row. This can mean that the advocate and judge may not easily be able to see each another, or have to strain to do so. It is not uncommon for counsel to attend court and find that hearing loops are not working. Accessible toilets may be some distance from the courtroom, and this may mean that at lunchtime practitioners have a choice between getting something to eat or using the facilities. Dilapidated court buildings can pose health and safety risks to partially sighted court users – eg rips in the carpet posing a trip hazard.

Judicial attitudes can also be a marked problem. The Bar Council’s Disability Panel has received many reports of judges that are impatient with counsel with disabilities or reluctant to make reasonable adjustments. We recently heard, for example, from a disabled practitioner who needed to set up specialist equipment to enable them to participate fully in a hearing. Despite their best efforts, the courtroom was not opened in sufficient time for the equipment to be set up for a 10.30am start. The judge, rather than apologising for the fact that it was not possible for counsel to arrange to gain early access to the courtroom, instead made very clear their displeasure at being unable to start at 10.30am. The impact of such behaviour on an advocate about to make submissions to such a judge, as well as the impact on a lay client who may wonder if they are going to be penalised by a judge who is cross with counsel because of their disabilities, cannot be ignored.

The Bar is a specialist referral profession with a focus on advocacy. If advocates with disabilities cannot gain access to the court estate, find the facilities lacking if they can get into the court building, and encounter hostility from the Bench for asking for reasonable adjustments, it is a certainty that this will have an impact on recruitment as well as retention and progression.

So, what can we do?

I joined the Disability Panel in 2012. Looking over the minutes from my first meeting, I can see that, nearly a decade later, matters have not improved in any meaningful way. While the focus of this article is on the impact on the Bar, the problems highlighted above will impact on all court users and raise important issues in respect of access to justice.

Many of the problems with court access will require HM Treasury to properly fund HMCTS so that it can carry out much needed capital projects to improve the court estate. Even if money were made available, this is unlikely to be a quick fix.

There are, however, things that can be done by HMCTS now that would have a marked impact on accessibility for practitioners with disabilities.

We would champion the introduction of designated accessibility officers (with dedicated email addresses) for each court or tribunal building. Such officers would then be tasked with proactively considering the question of accessibility but would also be a point of contact to whom disabled practitioners, or their clerks, could reach out to discuss adjustments that might be needed in advance of any hearings.

At present, there is no mandatory equality, diversity, and inclusivity training for the judiciary. This needs to change. All judges ought to be required to undergo training on disability discrimination – including reasonable adjustments.

A national protocol ought to be established which benchmarks how HMCTS and the judiciary will meet their obligations to ensure access to the courts for disabled court users (both professional and lay).

Finally, there needs to be a regular dialogue between the Judicial Office and HMCTS with key stakeholders – including the Bar Council’s Disability Panel – on identifying problems with accessibility and how they can be addressed.

In October 2021, a team from the Bar Council’s Disability Panel held the first in a series of meetings to address these issues with HMCTS and the Judicial Office. It was heartening to see how seriously our colleagues viewed these problems and their commitment to work with the profession to try and resolve them.

If the Bar Council’s Disability Panel is to be effective in this work, it needs more data on the problems that are being encountered. Please contact us on our dedicated email address: 

How to: creating accessible and inclusive chambers
To mark International Day of People with Disabilities in early December, the Bar Council’s Disability Panel hosted a seminar on 1 December 2021: Creating more accessible and inclusive chambers. The event, in partnership with the Institute of Barristers’ Clerks and Legal Practice Management Association, included discussions on good practice on reasonable adjustments in a chambers’ context – for applicants, pupils and practising barristers and their staff (based on common calls to Bar Council helplines and the Disability Panel) – as well as an introduction to advice and resources available to chambers to support inclusion with respect to disability (both visible and non-visible). The Panel was joined by experts in disability good practice in both a workplace and specifically chambers’ context.
The 2021 International Day of People with Disabilities took place on 3 December with the theme ‘Fighting for rights in the post-COVID era’. See:
UK Disability History Month 2021 runs from 18 November to 18 December. See: