It has long been acknowledged, and even longer evident, that wider systems of racism negatively impact the professional development of those that are racialised* at the Bar. These systems are pervasive and reflected throughout society. They discourage talent, damage confidence, instil resentment and, ultimately, allow unfairness and unequal access to opportunities to become entrenched. Fundamentally, we all suffer as a profession.

In March 2018, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) published Heads Above the Parapet: How can we improve Race Equality at the Bar? The report set out, among other things, how a culture of discrimination, ambivalence and inaction has created significant barriers to entry, high attrition rates and ‘an inequality of opportunity’. This has contributed to inequitable impacts between different racial groups at all levels of the Bar and judiciary.

In 2020, in order to implement the findings of this report, and following the murder of George Floyd and the global wake-up call around issues of racial injustice, the BSB set up the Race Equality Task Force (‘the Task Force’). The Task Force consists of members of the Bar and the supporting institutions, such as the BSB and Inns of Court. The main objective is to normalise a culture of awareness, inclusion and fairness based on racial identity throughout the Bar.

There has been a huge shift within the profession generally. Many of the issues stifling the professional development of racialised practitioners have been spoken about honestly and openly, perhaps for the very first time at the Bar. There have been meetings, workshops, dialogue spaces and panels held by the Bar Council, the BSB, the Inns and the professional associations. Many chambers have established committees and working groups to support racial justice.

Yet, is it enough? Are we seeing the changes that so many of us have long hoped to see? It seems not. Racism at the Bar continues to be entrenched and pervasive. This shows us that the problems are not simple ones and continue to require sustained actions in multiple different ways.

In September 2021, the Bar Council published Barristers’ Working Lives 2021, which found the following:

  • Reports of bullying, harassment and discrimination have continued to increase since the last report in 2017. Around 30% of respondents to the survey have experienced these dynamics.
  • Barristers from racialised backgrounds were twice as likely as white barristers to have experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination (53% of Black barristers, 47% of Asian barristers and 46% of barristers from mixed backgrounds, compared with 26% of white barristers). These figures increase to four times more likely when looking at racialised women at the Bar, due to the compounding intersectional nature of race and gender (p 2).

The concerning findings were echoed by the BSB in its October 2020 research report entitled: Bullying, Discrimination and Harassment at the Bar. This found that:

‘[t]hose who were BAME and female, disabled or/and LGBTQ+ felt they experienced greater levels of discrimination.’ (p 24)

These figures showing differential (mis)treatment based on our social groups remain outrageously high for a profession that places justice at its core. We recognise that this is not an outcome that most of us want to create and it is important that we are all encouraged to continue to make collective change.

Despite this depressing situation, the Bar is not alone in having to challenge the prevalence of systems of oppression among us. There may have been a global wake-up call, but these dynamics impact most sectors of society and on many levels. They are a direct result of the socialisation and conditioning that has been ongoing for centuries, through our history of colonialism and slavery.

Although none of us have created these dynamics, we all help to perpetuate them and so we all have a responsibility to be willing to bring change. By definition, if someone is disadvantaged by oppression, someone is privileged by it. If we fail to collectively bring change, then we are complicit in the systems that cause harm.

We on the Task Force care deeply about supporting such challenge and change. We invite you (yes, you!) to join us and the many others effecting change at the Bar.

Anti-racist statement

In November 2020, the BSB produced an Anti-Racist Statement. This invited all chambers, as part of their commitment to furthering the goal of anti-racism at the Bar, to deliver four specific actions: 

  1. complete a race equality audit;
  2. design and implement positive action measures;
  3. undertake comprehensive anti-racist training for all barristers and staff;
  4. produce and publish an anti-racist statement for members of chambers and the public. 

Anti-racism is a term that requires authentic intent and meaningful action. By producing the Anti-Racism Statement, the BSB is asking the Bar to create positive actions to support a more racially inclusive environment for those within the profession and those that we serve. Although individual chambers are left to develop and implement the specific actions in their own way, in this article we provide some ideas and guidance around this.

1: Race equality audit

A race equality audit is an opportunity to develop awareness on how issues of race are impacting your chambers. The format of the audit is variable. The first step is to get clear about your objectives, ie what are you hoping to achieve from the audit? It is useful to have some wider objectives, independent of meeting the BSB guidance. You may want to explore the culture of chambers in relation to issues of inclusion, for example. You may want to understand the experiences of racialised and white/(presenting) members and staff.

Once the objectives are clear, steps can be taken to gain the necessary information. These may include a number of measures; each chambers is different and can choose to follow a path that best serves its needs. Examples of data to collect and examine include the following:

  • racial make-up of members and staff in chambers;
  • allocation of work and any disparity in earnings of barristers from different racial groups;
  • racial make-up of pupillage applications and offers; and
  • racial make-up of key decision-makers and committees.

Further, you may wish to audit all your policies, processes and procedures with a view to ensuring they root out discrimination, and value and encourage difference. Opportunities should be created for members and staff to feed back their experiences so that they can be supported.

There are different methods of collating the data. For example, examining the information and processes that you have in place, and being aware of any gaps. You may want to send out an anonymised survey asking key questions about the awareness and impact of issues involving race. In response to the survey, you may wish to consider holding focus groups and/or one-to-one interviews with racialised and white members and staff. This type of interaction provides an opportunity for your chambers to delve more deeply into the issues as they present.

It may be useful to have an external facilitator for these processes, so that participants feel more comfortable in speaking openly. It is vital that confidentiality is maintained. This is particularly important so that more junior and racialised members and staff have the safety in place to speak openly, without fear of repercussions.

2: Design and implement positive action measures

Once the audit has been conducted, it should become more apparent where attention is needed to move towards your objectives. Positive action measures can relate to any number of issues, such as recruitment, policy changes, retention, training, awareness raising and outreach initiatives. These may include:

  • developing effective data monitoring systems;
  • ensuring an inclusive approach is taken to recruitment;
  • supporting inclusive retention and career progression;
  • ensuring that all policies, processes and systems challenge discriminatory impacts;
  • ensuring that committees include a member with an equity remit;
  • ensuring that leadership of chambers is aware that the success of these issues is its responsibility; and
  • creating a safe and encouraging environment for everyone to develop the knowledge and confidence to talk about and combat racism within chambers and in society.
3: Undertake comprehensive anti-racist training for all barristers and staff

The importance of training cannot be overstated. We continue to see huge disparities in ‘racial literacy’ – the awareness and knowledge of how race impacts us at the Bar.

The Task Force receives reports that some barristers do not see racism as an issue. This is possibly because racism is not part of your experience; whereas others, mostly from racialised backgrounds, experience or witness racism on a regular basis. This disparity is the source of much pain and ongoing trauma among us.

The idea of training is to support the growth of all members of the Bar and to bring more alignment. It is important to create a learning environment where everyone feels able to develop the knowledge and confidence to talk about and combat racial injustice.

There are various ways to organise such training. There are a number of private training providers who are experienced in providing such training, and the Bar Council has just rolled out a training product.

4: Produce and publish an anti-racist statement for members of chambers and the public 

It is important that an anti-racist statement has specific meaning for an individual chambers, rather than just copying out a generic statement.

Such statements are both a necessary and important part of the process of normalising the awareness and recognition of issues of racism. They are an outward indicator that chambers and the wider profession are taking positive action to ultimately eliminate racial injustice from within the profession.

They show that we are all impacted by racism among us; and that we are all willing to show up to bring the necessary change. 

* The term ‘racialised’ includes a number of terms such as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME); Black and Minority Ethnic (BME); person of colour (POC) etc.
Since this article was written, the Bar Council launched its major report, Race at the Bar addressing inequality at the Bar and proposing a series of recommendations for action. This will be covered in a forthcoming issue of Counsel.