Much of my time as Chair is spent promoting the Bar and legal services. There is always a good story to tell; in other jurisdictions our profession and our senior judiciary (still largely drawn from the Bar) are widely admired. I have been involved in proceedings in other countries where the atmosphere during hearings was often very different to our own courts. Measured and courteous exchanges between Bar and Bench are often the subject of envious comment by lawyers from abroad who attend hearings here. There is no false deference involved in this approach; it allows barristers to walk a difficult line, being fearless and robust in defence of their clients’ interests while maintaining their duty to the court and the administration of justice. Most judges also want to get the best out of counsel appearing before them because, at the very least, assistance from the Bar helps with the conduct of proceedings and difficult judicial decision-making. In my experience there is a high degree of judicial tolerance in relation to errors, particularly on the part of younger members of the Bar, as well as varying standards of performance in court.

The judiciary is also, in a direct sense, invested in a flourishing and diverse Bar because it represents the talent pool on which it draws.

All barristers who have been at the Bar for some time can probably recall judges who were known in coded language to be ‘difficult’. That behaviour referred to in this opaque way persists, to any degree, is of course a cause for concern. What has changed is the view that it has to be put up with as a rite of passage or because it is part of a character-building process of becoming a tougher advocate. As with many areas of our everyday and professional lives, the relative anonymity of social media has been one of the means by which the nature of a hidden problem has more recently been illuminated. Rare but real would be a fair description.

As well as the impact upon individuals we should not underestimate the wider effect on the Bar. Making the Bar accessible and appealing to a wider pool of talent must include challenging any image of the profession as one that exposes its members to bullying and harassment, or does not take a zero tolerance policy to such incidents.

I should add that there is no evidence, in my view, that young barristers have ‘snowflake’ tendencies or are unduly sensitive. They face many challenges, financial, academic and professional, which were unknown to previous generations. We are fortunate that we continue to attract individuals of the highest calibre who are as robust as any of their predecessors.

We should, however, be clear about what constitutes bullying. It’s not grumpiness or annoyance when a barrister falls below the standard of advocacy expected of them. Judges face significant pressures and are not immune from the effects of stress and increasing professional demands. Some of the complaints which have reached me are, I suspect, instances of judges simply doing their job in protecting witnesses from improper questioning or reminding counsel of the need, for example, to make allegations of dishonesty only upon a proper foundation. Others are no more than the rejection of arguments. What constitutes bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied. That applies to only a very small number, but the impact such behaviour causes can, of course, be severe.

Unlike many other professions and for those at the employed Bar, the option to take the matter up with an employer is not available to the self-employed Bar. The only formal channel for complaints of judicial bullying is to the Judicial Conduct and Investigations Office (JCIO). But this route is not the default one for many barristers.

We produced clear guidance in 2019 for barristers on judicial bullying, which gives details on the options available. As well as the JCIO, other less formal routes are available, such as discussing the matter with your Head of Chambers or Circuit Leader or contacting the Bar Council’s confidential helpline. Wellbeing support is also available .

Since then, the Bar Council has also deployed its online confidential reporting tool – Talk to Spot – which gives barristers the option to record and, if they choose, report anonymously. One of the app’s benefits is that it can identify trends without those reporting being identified. This enables us to further target and tailor interventions in future.

But the challenge I’ve heard from barristers is that while reporting this kind of unacceptable behaviour by judges is all well and good, it doesn’t result in any change or repercussions for the judges involved.

We were encouraged by the fact that the judiciary recently invited us to discuss the issue of judicial bullying, an invitation we have taken up (reports in the press of the Bar Council ‘demanding’ such a meeting are inaccurate and wholly misplaced). We are now working closely with the judiciary on this matter, acting as the voice of the profession to collaborate on how we deal with the issue in the long-term.

The Bar Council is doing its part, alongside the senior judiciary, to ensure there is a collective commitment to deal with bullying in all its forms.