In the summer of 2021, the Research team were asked by the Bar Council’s Race Working Group (RWG) to support them in creating an evidence-based overview of the state of play around race at the Bar. The RWG wanted to be informed as to the precise points where intervention was necessary to advocate for change where it was most needed.

We used our membership database and Barristers’ Working Lives survey data to provide an analysis of key metrics around career development opportunities for barristers differentiated by race. We then supplemented this quantitative data with a series of focus groups exploring the four key themes of access, retention, progression and culture.

The evidence we gathered for the resultant Race at the Bar report categorically evidenced that, “barristers from ethnic minority backgrounds, and especially Black and Asian women, face systemic obstacles to building and progressing a sustainable and rewarding career at the Bar.”

It was apparent, though, that work remained to be done to further explore and explain the disparities we saw.

At the self-employed Bar, access to high quality work is the bridge to career progression. In a profession that offers such varied opportunities, it can be challenging to measure access to work in real time, so we usually need to resort to measuring the outcome of that work in the form of income and KC status.

We noted as part of the Race at the Bar project that appointment to government panels provided access to a regular source of prestigious work. We had been told in the focus groups that barristers felt there was under-representation of some groups on some panels. We did not, however, have the data to be able to draw any firm conclusions about the composition of government panels. Having previously engaged with the SFO, GLD and CPS on the matter, we observed that monitoring data on panel composition was not published.

So, we committed to a follow-up project where we would collate, review and analyse data on government panel composition.

The lists of those who have been appointed to government panels are in the public domain. Over 3,000 barristers (24 per cent of the self-employed Bar) sit on a government panel. We downloaded the lists of panel appointees from the relevant government websites and carried out a data matching exercise, where we matched the names with the demographic characteristics we hold in our membership database. We were then able to, for the first time, systematically analyse the composition of each of the panels under consideration by sex and race.

The resultant report demonstrates that barristers from Black and Asian backgrounds are under-represented on most government panels. There are only 47 Black barristers on the panels examined in this report, out of 3,082 barristers in total (1.5 per cent of panel composition). And seniority is inversely correlated with ethnic diversity on panels – there are no Black or Asian women silks on any of the panels, and only very few Asian men.

There remains a final stage. We now have the evidence to demonstrate that the composition of government panels does not represent the composition of the Bar. We do not fully understand why, and we have asked government departments to commit to monitoring the pool of applicants and the appointment process for panel selection by protected characteristic to address that question.

We also do not have information to allow us to understand who gets access to the high-quality work when appointed to a panel. We have therefore asked government departments to work with us to commit to monitoring work allocation and income within panels by protected characteristic.

The process of researching and writing the Race at the Bar report and the Government Legal Panels report has underscored the necessity of a strong evidential base for any policy work that seeks to promote change. We need to understand the situation as it is before we can ask others to work with us to reshape it as we would like it to be.

The promises of digital utopia are manifold. One of many possible transactions implies that in exchange for multiple tiny pieces of human information, analysts can seek to explore and explain the individual and collective lived experiences of the data subjects.

In the Research Team at the Bar Council, we aim to move beyond simply mobilising data to codify and explain the lived experience of working as a barrister, and instead apply it to telling human stories that best represent the interests of our members.