“Systemic obstacles” continue to inhibit ethnic minority barristers’ progress, according to latest report

updated on 09 November 2021

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The Bar Council’s Race Working Group has launched a new report to address inequality at the Bar. The report provides statistics and personal testimony to highlight the prejudice that is rife within the profession.

“Data in the report categorically and definitively evidences, in quantitative and qualitative terms, that barristers from all ethnic minority backgrounds, and especially Black and Asian women, face systemic obstacles to building and progressing a sustainable and rewarding career at the Bar,” said co-chairs of the Bar Council Race Working Group Barbara Mills QC and Simon Regis in a joint statement.

Findings included in the report show how aspiring barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds find it harder to secure pupillage compared to their similarly qualified White British counterparts.

The report also highlights the severe pay gap issue whereby White male barristers earn the highest fee income, women earn less than men and Black women earn the least. A Black woman (publicly funded criminal junior barrister) bills on average £18,700 a year less than a White male junior with the same level of experience; and an Asian woman bills around £16,400 less.

One anonymous barrister said: “The lie is that all you have to do to succeed at the Bar is work hard.”

Systemic barriers continue to stifle the progression of barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds. In England and Wales there are only five Black/Black British women Queen’s Counsel (QC), 17 Black/Black British male QCs, 17 Asian/Asian British female QCs and 60 male Asian/Asian British QCs. Of QCs who are from mixed/multiple ethnicity background, there are nine women and 16 men.

As part of the report, individuals at the Bar shared their experiences. On belonging, one individual said: “People assume that you are a cleaner wearing a suit.”

There are several practice areas, including crime, family and financial services, that have no QC representation from barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds. Meanwhile, only 1% of judges are Black and only 2% are from mixed ethnic backgrounds.

On top of this, the report indicates that bullying and harassment at the Bar is an issue. Black and Asian women at the Bar are four times more likely to experience bullying and harassment at work than White men, according to the report. Nearly 60% of Black and Asian women barristers reported experiencing bullying and harassment at work or online.

Circuits, Specialist Bar Associations, the Inns of Court, individual chambers and networks, among other organisations, all have a significant role in creating positive change within the profession.

The co-chairs of the Bar Council Race Working Group continued: “We have endeavoured to make recommendations as targeted as possible towards groups where the greatest disadvantage can be evidenced.

“Quite rightly, practising barristers within the profession have expressed frustration over the amount of talk about race inequality at the Bar, and the lack of action and failure to bring about change.”

Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council, said: “We should reflect honestly on whether long held, and perhaps defensive, assumptions about the Bar can survive the evidence and data which the report draws together. The Bar is, for most of its members, a modern profession in which hard work and talent offer individuals the opportunity to thrive and contribute to our justice system. That opportunity needs to be open to all.

“Experiences may differ in different parts of the Bar, but the overall conclusion is clear; there is a moral and practical imperative for the profession to urgently promote diversity and to be more reflective of the society it serves.

“Over the past year, I have been encouraged by the huge amount of work and collaboration currently underway across Specialist Bar Associations, Inns, Circuits and a range of networks. Some of the recommendation made in this report are already in place in one form or another. There has been real progress, not just in identifying problems but in setting out plans to tackle them.

“We must now work together to make the Bar more inclusive and accessible for every aspiring and practicing barrister irrespective of their background.”

Find out what else the legal profession is doing to address the lack of diversity at the Bar via LawCareers.Net’s Diversity Hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG (UK) LLP