But even isolated incidents still have the potential to cause enormous damage to the career of the complainant, end the career of any alleged perpetrator, and impact the reputation and wellbeing of other members of chambers. This research prompted the Bar Council to publish its guide to help chambers deal properly with sexual harassment in the profession. It emphasises that harassment should not be tolerated in any circumstances and that complaints should be taken seriously.
Instances of sexual harassment underscore the potential power imbalance between the alleged perpetrator and complainant, promote a culture of intimidation, and may prevent formal reporting because of fear of an adverse impact on the complainant’s career progression. The Bar Council is anxious to encourage complainants to come forward and also for alleged perpetrators in chambers to be dealt with justly through a proper procedure that promotes a confidential, prompt and proportionate investigation.
What chambers can do
First and foremost, chambers need a clear and detailed policy that can be relied on. Thinking through what steps your chambers might take in advance of any complaint will make handling any complaint much less difficult and stressful. For example, are you going to suspend the alleged perpetrator pending investigation? How will you conduct an investigation? How will you ensure confidentiality? What will you do if the complainant tells you about the incident ‘informally’ but is not prepared to make a formal complaint? At what stage will you report the incident to the BSB?
Not surprisingly, chambers often struggle. Barristers specialising in this area will know that even organisations that benefit from an experienced human resources department can get this wrong. Unlike large employers, chambers don’t have specialists on tap to help with these issues. The Bar Council’s guide sets out the definition of sexual harassment, the mandatory regulatory requirement for chambers to have a proper procedure for handling complaints of sexual harassment, advice for those making a complaint, the duties of Heads of Chambers, and the obligations to report certain matters to the Bar Standards Board. In order to contextualise the key issues, it also includes sample scenarios (see box) and a model policy emphasising best practice, tips, victim support information and advice on encouraging self-reporting to the BSB.
One of the biggest challenges is encouraging complainants to come forward. More often they will leave chambers rather than make a complaint. In more extreme cases, they may fear for their own safety. Understanding the pressures on the complainant whilst being fair to any alleged perpetrator can make handling claims of sexual harassment a minefield for chambers.
Whilst we may be thankful that harassment is not tolerated in our own chambers, we may be aware of other chambers where its members feel that to make ‘any’ complaint would be a mistake. That must stop and we must encourage best practice across the Bar by taking the welfare of barristers, pupils and our staff seriously. No-one should be afraid to practise, or fear that the behaviour of another may damage their career – modern harassment can include men harassed by women, and same-sex harassment too. We must now relegate any residual pernicious sexual harassment to the past to ensure a level playing field where all barristers can thrive and succeed to the highest levels. Please ensure that your colleagues and staff in chambers are aware of this guide, and that a copy is easily available to consult.
‘Tackling sexual harassment: information for chambers’ can be found here. Please contact Sam Mercer, Head of Policy, Equality & Diversity and CSR, with any questions, suggestions for improvement and instances of best practice (email@example.com).
Contributor Fiona Jackson, Barrister and Vice Chair of the Bar Council’s Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility Committee
A pupil complains they have been sexually harassed by their pupil supervisor and raises this with the senior clerk, the Head of the Pupillage Committee and a fellow pupil in chambers. The clerk tells her to ignore it. The Head of the Pupillage Committee acknowledges there are rumours about the supervisor and transfers the pupil to another pupil supervisor. The Head of Chambers reports the matter to the Bar Standards Board. The pupil then leaves chambers, uncomfortable about continuing to practise alongside her harasser and Chambers’ decision to leave the complaint to the BSB’s disciplinary process.
What chambers did right? The Head of the Pupillage Committee was correct to transfer the pupil. The Head of Chambers was correct to report to the BSB.
What chambers could have done better? However, the procedure adopted by Chambers was wholly inadequate. The alleged harasser was not subjected to any process and the pupil may feel justified in thinking that the issue had been ‘brushed under the carpet’. The nature and seriousness of the harassment should be considered as well as whether the pupil supervisor is a repeat offender, as the rumours appear to indicate. Simply moving the pupil, who was in a position of vulnerability is not a sufficient response.