On 24 December it will be 101 years since women were first admitted to an Inn, the first step to success at the Bar, and yet, senior women barristers are still a rare sight in fraud and corruption trials. It is common to see entirely male counsel leading on both sides of a complex and high-profile fraud case, but women leading teams are rare and all-women teams rarer still. Although there are greater numbers of women getting fraud work at the junior end, we are a long way from parity.

In 2010, I was in a fraud trial with Sara Lawson, now QC and General Counsel at the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). I was the only woman QC amongst seven teams and Sara was the first junior for the prosecution.  It would not be until 2018 that I was in a trial with more than one female QC. This state of affairs is reflected in the legal directories where, even in the 2021 editions, less than 12% of those said to be the leading QCs in financial crime are women. We must break this self-fulfilling cycle.

To do so, the Bar Council has recently been focusing on why there are still so few women recognised for their expertise at the most senior levels of the profession.   As part of our Modernising the Bar initiative, we are speaking with organisations across the legal profession and beyond, to establish how well women and other under-represented groups are faring, and ways to improve the situation. We are pleased to be working with the SFO and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to ensure better prospects for barristers from a range of diverse backgrounds. 

Women make up almost 50 per cent of the overall SFO workforce and, at a senior level, the Director, General Counsel and Chief Capability Officer are all women.

Sara Lawson QC says: “I’m proud to be the first female General Counsel and to be working in a female-centric management structure at the SFO with the vast majority of senior managers being women. Having been in the male-dominated world of fraud for many years, this is a subject very close to my heart. The SFO, as a client of the Bar, has a part to play in building a strong and diverse profession.”  

The statistics at the self-employed Bar are disappointing but informative: in 2019, women made 23% of the total earnings at the criminal Bar, 39% less than men on average. Given that most criminal practice is publicly funded, the Bar Council has been working with the CPS to investigate the distribution of their work and briefing practices to determine if they are leading to the disparity of earnings. In an article for the Bar Council, Rebecca Lawrence, CEO of the CPS, reflected on the findings: “While our panels reflect the gender balance of the Bar, there is a disparity between men and women at senior levels, with female barristers also less likely to receive higher fee paying work.”

By examining fee payment data, it was discovered that different types and levels of cases were not being allocated proportionately. As a result, changes are already being made to improve practices, including a review of the CPS’s advocacy strategy and a new system to analyse diversity data on briefing practices.

The SFO is a much smaller organisation than the CPS but, Sara comments, “We too are working to improve our data to show us the real picture. I am actively working to increase the diversity of the counsel we use. Outreach efforts to publicise our new lists led to over 700 people registering an interest, although only 269 people applied and, of them, only 88 were women, up from the 68 women on our current lists. We encouraged applicants to complete a diversity and equality form to reveal other protected characteristics, because these are just as important to us as gender. We are looking at those figures to consider ways of improving further all diversity. I’m keen for staff to instruct counsel they may not have worked with before to make new additions to our lists worthwhile. We also instruct counsel off list for certain work.”

A recent interrogation of SFO fee data was instructive. “Over the last year our data, on gender alone, shows that we instructed equal numbers of male and female barristers. This is encouraging and our rates of pay are the same for everyone, depending on what list they are on, but we recognise that we need to look into data on how many hours counsel are given and therefore how much they earn.”

Like the Bar Council and the CPS, the SFO considers diversity vital to its success. To do meaningful analysis, we need good quality evidence to underpin it so, we have to strive further to collect diversity data. We need to build confidence that this data is important so that practitioners provide it; that robust data will lead to systems that identify whether we are distributing work fairly and successfully building the skills and experience of advocates from diverse backgrounds. If we fail to do this, we will never make progress.

The Bar Council’s ambitious Modernising the Bar Programme tackles the barriers which have held too many back. It will ensure that every barrister has fair access to work and opportunities. We want everyone to benefit.

Amanda Pinto QC, Chair of the Bar for 2020