Bar Council to commission review after reports of bullying and harassment grow

Barristers’ professional body for England and Wales commits to tackle ‘systemic issue’

The Bar Council is to commission a review after it found growing numbers of barristers had experienced inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour at the Bar. 

A report published today by the Bar Council and based on data from its biennial Barristers’ Working Lives survey detailed how barristers had increasingly reported experiencing or witnessing bullying, harassment and discrimination. More than four in 10 (44%) respondents said they had experienced or observed such behaviour while working either in person or online, up from 38% in 2021 and 31% in 2017.

The behaviours were observed across the profession and involved judges, barristers, chambers’ staff and solicitors as well as court staff, the Bar Council said. It added that inappropriate behaviour “can include pejorative or demeaning language, intimidating or bullying behaviour, unwanted attention, unwanted physical contact, sexual harassment and serious abuse, inappropriate comments, online abuse, or sexist, racist and ableist behaviours”.

The report found that those more at risk of experiencing such behaviour were women, people of colour and younger and more junior members of the Bar. Barristers with caring responsibilities or a disability also reported being disproportionately affected.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who were complained about were generally those in a position of power or influence and included judges, more senior barristers, senior clerks and practice managers. 

Concerningly, the report also noted that behaviour witnessed in the court room had led to clients questioning if their case would be fairly considered, which it said could compromise their trust in the justice system.

The main reason given for not reporting incidents of bullying, harassment or discrimination was fear of repercussions, the report found, with some respondents saying they had been told as part of the bullying behaviour that if they complained they would never work at the Bar again. 

The Bar Council said it viewed the issue as systemic and a consequence of both the culture of the Bar and “the external pressures on professional life within an acutely under-resourced justice system”.

It added that “unrealistic expectations, impatience and frustration can be experienced as bullying. Discrimination and harassment, however, cannot be explained or excused by external pressures”.  

The Bar Council said that in response to the findings it had committed to address inappropriate and abusive behaviour by commissioning a review that would be established by spring 2024 and would report the following year. The review will be tasked with considering and identifying solutions, with a particular focus on prevention and mitigating strategies. 

Along with a review, the report recommended that the Bar Council should make sure that existing resources such as helplines and guidance were easily accessible and to continue promoted its ‘Talk to Spot’ tool, which allows complaints to be logged anonymously. 

Barbara Mills KC, vice-chair elect of the Bar Council, said the problem “cannot be focused on reporting alone as the impetus for change must not solely rely on those most affected. That is why we have decided to commission a Bar-wide review to help us to identify comprehensive solutions”. 

Sam Townend KC, chair-elect of the Bar Council, commented: “We hope the judiciary, clerks, chambers professionals and the Inns will work together with us to facilitate meaningful change. We want everyone at the Bar to thrive and enjoy a fulfilling career.”

The report – Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination at the Bar – was based on research data from the Barristers’ Working Lives survey 2023, reports to Talk to Spot and calls to the Bar Council’s helplines. 

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