Second Bar Council Disability Conference

Profession
Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, in his keynote speech welcomed the opportunity which the Bar Council Disability Conference gave to play an important part ‘in enabling chambers and individual barristers to learn from’ examples of ‘reasonable adjustments which lawyers in general, and members of the Bar in particular, should be making so as to render access to justice properly accessible for all’.


Speaking on 31 October, he praised the anti-discrimination laws as a ‘shining example of why the exception to the general rule [that changes in the law should be slow and restrained] exists and why it is so important’. Such legislation should also be welcomed ‘because in many cases, it has been ahead of public opinion. It has not only sent out a message about how people should behave, but it has made people behave properly’.

Lord Neuberger was concerned not just for the sake of lay clients but also for disabled barristers and the judiciary alike. ‘If the Bar is not open to all, that is unfair to some sections of society, and it means that the Bar is shut off to some of the most able people’. His desire to see awareness raised goes back to the Entry to the Bar Working Party report, which he chaired in 2007 and which then noted the relatively low level of awareness at the Bar of disability related issues. Conferences such as this and the new Equality and Diversity provisions in the Code of Conduct together with the legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010 should help. The door must remain ‘firmly open, and that those who go through it remain inside, and become leading juniors, QCs and ultimately members of the judiciary’. The pool of candidates for judicial office must be as wide as possible. ‘It is a matter of facilitating the development of a properly diverse judiciary.’

The 2007 Working Party had recommended compulsory equality and diversity training as part of CPD at the Bar. He would also like to see a renewed commitment and increased element of professional ethics at university and the Bar schools. In addition, it is ‘apparently that holistic approach across the entire legal profession is needed’ to arrive at a common standard and common approach to mentoring.

The group which numbered 70 then took part in four workshops, dealing with sight impairments, mental health, hearing impairments and developing chambers’ reasonable adjustment policies. The emphasis was on offering practical advice in dealing with visually or hearing impaired clients, defendants or witnesses in court as well as staff, pupils or tenants. Rachel Spearing of Pump Court chambers and Emma Mamo of MIND outlined the advice in the Mental Health Toolkit for advocates who prosecute or defend, and discussed scenarios for dealing with mental health issues arising in chambers and with workplace mental distress.

There was also a presentation from LAWCARE which offers services for the Bar with a focus on stress recognition and management and the implications of stress management for practice and fitness to practise issues.

The latter workshop stimulated the most discussion in the plenary session, where it was felt that the stigma around the issues of mental breakdown in chambers was so great that it was not possible - short of a much-needed change in culture - to deal with them early and fully enough to make a difference.

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