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.
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.