The Bar & anti-racism

Time for a change of tone on race equality? Why the Bar should organise as part of the anti-racist movement sweeping through the professions.

By Sara Ibrahim


This year has begun with arguments about race: from Megxit to Laurence Fox on BBC Question Time, to Alastair Stewart stepping down from ITV News. However, the intensity of the debate has not sparked an appetite for change. Instead of meaningful dialogue we have often had a hollowed-out contest between those who can see little, if any, racism and others who believe it to be endemic. Combatting racism matters. Further progress on fighting racism is both desirable and doable. So why should a barrister be invested in this struggle?

Why diversity in law matters

Diversity in law matters. It ensures we have access to the widest pool of talent and gives the public faith that they are well served by the justice system. The 2019 Bar Standards Board’s Diversity at the Bar report stated that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) barristers made up 13.6% of the Bar as a whole, roughly in line with the wider population.

However, this headline figure hides discrepancies between the experience of BAME and white barristers. BAME barristers are often disproportionately represented in lower paid areas of practice and are more likely to be employed or sole practitioners. The proportion of practitioners who are BAME drops off at QC level to 8.1% and approximately 7.1% of judges, according to the Judicial Diversity Statistics (2017). Current evidence suggests that BAME barristers are more likely to have experienced bullying or harassment than white barristers. Alarmingly, this discrimination is higher for female BAME barristers – 54.2% of female BAME barristers had experienced harassment, according to the Bar Standards Board’s 2016 Women at the Bar survey. These figures should make sobering reading for all members of the Bar.

Our inability to stamp out bullying and harassment in our own ranks calls into question the appearance of fairness of our justice system. Fairness and impartiality are owed not just to our clients but fellow members of the Bar. Our clients will soon see the hypocrisy if we appear unwilling to get our own house in order. We can no longer be satisfied with encouraging BAME applicants into the profession. We must do more to ensure that they have access to the full range of opportunities for work and advancement during the course of their careers.

Identity politics

BAME as a term captures very disparate and distinct racial identities. For that reason, various sub-groups have sprung up, attempting to focus on the unique issues faced by specific races or ethnic groups. While there are often compelling reasons to do this, the impact has been to blunt calls for change. In some instances, it has also created or amplified dividing lines between groups on race lines.

This manifests in two obvious ways. First, it excludes people who are not part of a narrowly defined group. For those who don’t share the same identity as the group, there is little sense that the issues discussed are relevant to the wider Bar. The BAME community would not be the first to fall into this trap. I vividly recall when it was anathema for women’s groups to be attended by men. Men have a key part to play in dismantling unhelpful systems and attitudes and their absence could be counterproductive. The upshot was many people who were already sold on the call for change ended up speaking only to each other. A key tool in any lawyer’s arsenal is the ability to persuade. We should apply it to ourselves: we must not shy away from speaking to those from different backgrounds.

Second, it is wrong to view race as a static category. The growth in the number of mixed or multiple ethnicities should change the way we think about race. In this decade, mixed race people could become the largest single minority group. The tendency to sub-divide the BAME community will collapse in the face of the myriad combinations thrown up by the mixed race community.

There will always be a place for groups representing specific races and ethnicities. However, for these groups to be an effective voice for change, they must sit as part of a larger anti-racist movement.

Anti-racist movement

The Bar should see itself as an integral part of a diverse society. It needs to take action and to organise as part of the anti-racist movement working its way through our professions. Anti-racism is concerned with building a campaign to break down systems and institutional policies that have a racist effect. It is by its nature inter faith, multi-racial and inclusive. This is vital for our integrity and continued relevance. We must realise that notions of access to justice mean more than entry to courts and tribunals. In the same way that barristers have a commitment to our professional and lay clients, we ought to be invested in treating each other fairly and without prejudice. This cannot be the responsibility of BAME barristers only.

Being the subject of racist comments is intensely isolating. It adds an extra level of strain in what is a highly pressurised environment. Allowing talented members of the Bar to be driven away due to prejudices about race that have no impact on their ability to represent their clients is entirely counterproductive as well as being wrong.

I am struck by how non-BAME barristers feel divorced from debates about racism. The frequent use of phrases such as ‘lived experiences’ mean white barristers can be effectively silenced. There has to be a degree of humility amongst BAME and white barristers because we can all make mistakes on the issue of race and, in particular, our use of language. From my own experience as a mixed race barrister, I have been on the receiving end of inappropriate comments from BAME as well as white barristers. We must foster an environment that focuses on calling out racism with an eye to progress. While it must be right to have penalties for racist behaviour, we must allow people to learn from their mistakes.

One of the greatest threats to combatting racism at the Bar is the lack of investment felt by non-BAME barristers in tackling the issue. Often junior BAME barristers are recruited to panels and chambers committees as a nod to diversity. This cannot be a substitute for the hard thinking required to be genuinely anti-racist. It would behove those who have never been subject to racist behaviour to listen with an open mind to colleagues who have, but they need to be part of the conversation.

I believe wholeheartedly that an anti-racist approach can be a reality for the Bar. Specialist Bar Associations, Circuits and Inns can play a vital role in supporting members of the Bar to drive this campaign forward. Chambers should be actively encouraged to seek support from the Bar Council and BSB to create a positive environment for all their barristers irrespective of race.

Race Equality Task Force

In 2018, the BSB held a seminar on race equality called Heads Above the Parapet. Among the solutions canvassed was the creation of a Race Equality Task Force. This task force has now been established by the BSB and is looking at how we can break down the barriers for BAME barristers.

Its work will provide a focal point around which to build an anti-racist movement at the Bar. As a member of that task force I am hopeful that we can provide the change of tone needed in the debate. We want to shift the focus from the BAME community to the whole Bar, to cultivate an environment that cherishes all barristers, irrespective of their race or ethnicity. This must include collecting data so we can properly identify the barriers to BAME barristers. The current reliance on anecdotal evidence fails to cast light on the situation.

Progress can be made but we must no longer assume that it will happen without effort.

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Sara Ibrahim

Sara Ibrahim is a barrister at 3 Hare Court specialising in employment and commercial law. She is a member of the BSB Race Equality Task Force and co-chairs a sub-committee on Social Mobility for Lincoln’s Inn.