When I came to Bar, "ghetto sets" still existed. Most of my contemporaries did the least remunerative, publicly funded work. We were mainly instructed by small BAME firms who barely stayed afloat in a hostile climate.
Many of us got through on free school meals, full University grants and part-time jobs. That window to social mobility closed quickly behind us. We wore our poverty like a badge and survival was the name of the game. But only a handful survived and one or two even thrived. In the evenings, we swapped stories about an insulting or difficult Judge, or a scrap with a condescending prosecutor. Our tough upbringing had prepared us for the fights and made us less fearful of the outcome. Even minor victories were savoured. We were part of a club that denied us full membership.
Much has changed since those good old, bad old days, including the profession's approach to equality and diversity. The tipping point came about 15 years ago. The Bar now has a genuine interest in inclusivity and to recruit the best. But we were slow to promote social mobility. It isn't the fault of Judges and senior lawyers that they largely come from privileged backgrounds or that their world views were forged in a few public schools and Universities. I have had to work on my prejudice against them, as they have in relation to me. They had the money and power. But we had the better argument and the tide of history in our favour.
I would not want to start all over again as a young, working class BAME entrant to our profession. I might re-consider University and Bar School if I knew I'd have debts of £30k or more. My teachers advised I take an apprenticeship and my mum’s factory had a job waiting. I doubt that I would be able to survive the early years of the criminal bar now. The income is a fraction of those times; professional and living expenses are a greater burden. Ever decreasing work and lower legal aid fees add to the mix. Austerity has put brakes on social mobility.
Covid-19 has exploited our differences and set progress back a generation. Smaller Chambers (which tend to have a greater concentration of BAME barristers) appear to have fared far worse than the more established sets. Those with lower cash reserves and least privately funded work have been hit hardest. No surprise that BAME barristers are over-represented in both areas. Chambers' budgets have tightened, and protective walls will go up again. Years of chipping away at the barriers to entry will be undone.
Early Bar Council surveys suggest there is worse to come. It is our duty to help juniors, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Just as the Government has financially protected businesses, so the profession should financially protect smaller sets and individuals who are on the edge. The profession has reserves of wealth enough to support struggling Chambers and their tenants. Heads should make it their business to look at work and finance distribution. Larger sets should offer staff and resources to smaller, struggling sets. This is the time to negotiate hard for increases in legal aid rates. We aren’t all in it together – Covid-19 has hit the most vulnerable the hardest. The profession should help them survive. It’s the right thing to do, and will benefit us all in the long run.
Sailesh Mehta, barrister, Red Lion Chambers.