Working at the Bar during a pandemic has been challenging for everyone. The scramble to hear cases online and getting to grips with new technology shifted into the fraught re-opening of courts and adapting to the new rules around social distancing and mask-wearing. Being on edge when someone in court coughs and the awkward attempts to remain two metres away from everyone, including a scared and confused client who just needs reassurance, is the exhausting new normal, for now.
The buildings in which we work, day in, day out, are often cramped, have long been in need of repair and modernisation, and even before an infectious pandemic were not always the healthiest of places to work. And now we have even bigger problems. Within an already overstretched and under-resourced system HMCTS is trying to clear a backlog of cases, adapt the buildings to achieve social distancing and accommodate people who are shielding or suddenly need to self-isolate. This requires everyone to know what the rules are in each particular court or tribunal they visit, to understand how to work safely, and to be flexible and accommodating around individual needs. A tall order.
Working together to ensure courts are as safe as possible and to prevent the spread of covid-19 should be a priority for everyone in the system. HMCTS has published details about security, cleaning and social-distancing arrangements in court and tribunal buildings during the pandemic. The Chief Executive of HMCTS has said that no court or tribunal building will be open unless it is safe to do so. Barristers have been told that if the arrangements in the court building and for conducting the hearing comply with the HMCTS requirements, they should attend the hearing unless they’re clinically vulnerable and shielding.
But since courts re-opened across the country there have been many reports of the rules not always being followed and barristers being put at risk. We’ve heard of a magistrate demanding all masks be removed in court, we’ve seen pictures of packed courtrooms and waiting areas and we’ve heard from barristers who’ve been ordered to come to court unnecessarily and despite the need to shield.
The Bar Council is keen to build a picture of when and where this is happening. To do this effectively we have expanded the Talk to Spot reporting tool which allows everyone at the Bar to report concerns through an online form. Reports can be submitted anonymously and will enable the Bar Council to intervene with individual judges and court buildings, or with HMCTS leaders who may not know the reality on the ground.
The Talk to Spot platform was launched last year, originally as a tool for reporting inappropriate and unprofessional behaviours, bullying, harassment and discrimination at the Bar. Reports can be of incidents that you’ve experienced yourself or witnessed. Since it launched, barristers have confidentially reported experiences of sexual assault by solicitors, discrimination by colleagues in chambers and bullying by judges. Many of the reports have been made anonymously, and where not anonymous have been responded to in confidence by the Equality and Diversity Team at the Bar Council, who have been able to provide support and take action. Together the reports help us paint a picture of problems at the Bar.
In these challenging times when it can sometimes feel like your voice is not being heard, Talk to Spot can be an effective way of helping the Bar Council take real action to address matters that concern us all.
Alongside Talk to Spot, the Bar Council provides confidential ethics and harassment helplines, training and support for members and chambers and research and guidance on all aspects of equality and diversity.
We would like everyone to be able to work in a safe environment and without fear or bullying or harassment. New tools such as Talk to Spot are taking us a step closer to that goal. By using it, you will be helping make sure that bullies and harassers in every corner of the Bar hear that message and change their behaviour.
So if something happens to you, to a colleague or friend, or if you see something happening which isn’t safe or feels wrong, let us know, Talk to Spot and help us tackle it.
Sophie Garner is a barrister and mediator at St Philips Chambers and Chair of the Bar Council’s Retention Panel.