For many years the Bar Council has been working on tackling bullying and harassment within the profession. Unfortunately, our research shows that 38% of barristers have experienced or observed bullying, harassment, or discrimination either in person or online at work.
Achieving culture change at the Bar
The Bar Council has created guidance, support, and resources aimed at raising awareness and improving understanding about the problem - so we can challenge individual instances of inappropriate behaviour while collectively taking steps to drive up standards.
We have endorsed the definition of bullying from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) which describes the phenomenon as “…offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate, or injure the recipient”.
We also refer to the definition taken from an anti-bullying website which says it is “… conduct that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.”
A definition of harassment is contained within the Equality Act 2010, which says it is “…unwanted conduct, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”
Support and guidance from the Bar Council
We want to tackle and prevent bullying, harassment, and other inappropriate behaviour across the Bar, within chambers and in court. Working towards this aim, we have created a range of guides and resources that include:
- Discrimination, harassment, bullying and inappropriate behaviour
- Wellbeing at the Bar - bullying
- Sexual harassment - information for chambers
- Talk to Spot
- Guidance on addressing judicial bullying
- Guidance on reporting obligations - serious misconduct
In January 2022, the Bar Council established a Working Group to review our current strategy and the support on offer. The group consisted of practising barristers tasked with helping the Bar Council make improvements to our current approach, increasing confidence in the existing reporting mechanisms, identifying appropriate stakeholders, and building a transparent strategy to tackle bullying behaviours.
Responding to the BSB’s proposals
The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has recently issued a new report: Addressing Bullying and Harassment at the Bar, and published a Commitment to Wellbeing statement. The Bar Council welcomes both the report and statement as positive moves in the right direction. We believe that a commitment to amend the BSB Handbook (code of conduct) to include bullying as an example of serious misconduct is a positive first step.
The BSB has also committed to updating the information available on their website to provide examples of what bullying and harassment commonly look like and to clarify when such behaviour constitutes serious misconduct.
The Bar Council has already published guidance that could help to inform the BSB’s work. We have listed examples of bullying behaviours and we want to see the BSB replicate our approach. Here are examples of types of behaviour that can be labelled as bullying and inappropriate behaviour at the Bar:
- An unreasonable exchange outside court
- Unreasonable pressure to concede a point or accept an offer during negotiations
- Unwanted physical contact
- Unwelcome remarks about a person’s age, dress, appearance, race/ethnicity, or marital status
- Jokes at personal expense, offensive language, gossip, slander
- Isolation or non-cooperation and exclusion from social activities
- Improper pressure to take on work that cannot be accommodated
- Improper pressure to reduce fees
- Personal intrusion from pestering, spying, or stalking
- Failure to safeguard confidential information
- Shouting or directed angry outbursts either in front of others or one to one
- Setting unrealistic deadlines
- Persistent unwarranted criticism
- Personal insults
We have also identified examples of behaviour that could be described as a barrister being bullied by a judge:
- A judge shouting at a barrister
- Deliberately saying things to embarrass or humiliate
- Asking a barrister to justify themselves in circumstances that are unfair
- Name calling
- Calling into question an individual’s professionalism in circumstances that are unfair
- Accusing a barrister of incompetence in circumstances that are unfair
- Using various facial expressions to demean or intimidate
- Setting unrealistic timeframes or deadlines
- Making a barrister work through their lunch breaks
- Refusing to give a barrister time to formulate an argument or response in circumstances where it is unfair to do so
Submitting reports and handling allegations
The BSB has said it “hopes to increase the number of reports being made, given the current problem of underreporting, and to demonstrate that such behaviours are not tolerated”. It has also committed to update the information available on the BSB website to clarify how it will handle reports in future and include details about the retention of data for analysis and supervisory and enforcement action. We welcome this statement of intent and agree that there needs to be more clarity and transparency when it comes to the process of reporting instances of bullying and inappropriate behaviour. To build trust and confidence, members of the Bar need to see the reporting process as robust and effective.
Culture change cannot be achieved by the Bar Standards Board alone. That is why we have welcomed the BSB commitment to engage with a range of stakeholders including the Bar Council, chambers, and Inns. We are keen to work with the BSB to find a way to communicate to the Bar how many reports are received, and action taken. We need to raise awareness about the support on offer and demonstrate that there is a helpful reporting and regulatory mechanism in place.
In its report, the BSB has also promised further guidance for chambers on how to introduce systems to handle allegations. We support the assertion that chambers should be able to undertake initial investigations to determine if incidents are serious enough to be reported to the regulator. Chambers need to respond rapidly and deal effectively with complaints, and we need further clarity from the BSB on how this new reporting mechanism within chambers will interact with notifying the BSB and the likely action the BSB will take.
The BSB report states that it is the intention of the regulator to strengthen the role of Equality and Diversity Officers (EDOs). The Bar Council wants to provide support to the BSB on this specific element of the work as we already engage with EDOs and understand some of the serious issues and obstacles they face. We are keen to support EDOs and we know that being an EDO is an important voluntary role that already brings considerable responsibilities.
The BSB waiver scheme
As part of a previous BSB pilot scheme, waivers have been granted from Rule C66 in the BSB Handbook (i.e., the duty to report serious misconduct) so that barristers who want to offer support and advice to other barristers, who may have experienced bullying, harassment, or inappropriate behaviour, are enabled to do so.
The Pilot Harassment Support Schemes Waiver Guidance has been recognised in the latest BSB report as a project that provides valuable, informal, supportive reporting routes and the BSB has now decided this scheme will be maintained. The Bar Council supports the continuation of the scheme because it can enable barristers to feel able to talk about their experiences of bullying and harassment with appropriately qualified peers.
Finally, the BSB report states: “We are also exploring how we might facilitate the provision of additional, dedicated support for those involved in our processes” and we support this commitment to consider what further steps the BSB can take to ensure complainants are properly supported as they go through a complaints process. Reporting inappropriate behaviour is difficult and those working with complainants need to understand the problem, its consequences and the support that is required.
There is a dedicated space on the Bar Council’s website providing information and support.
There is more information about the members of the Bar Council's Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility Committee and its Working Groups on the Bar Council’s website.
You can use our confidential helpline to speak to a member of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity team in confidence to get support and advice about bullying or harassment issues. This helpline is available to all members of the profession, staff, and members of chambers, employed barristers, pupils, and Bar students.
The helpline number is 0207 611 1426 and the line is open 10:00-17:15 on weekdays.
How to report bullying and harassment
You can report instances of bullying and harassment to the Bar Council’s online reporting tool Talk to Spot.
Chambers and employers should have bullying and/or harassment policies already in place.
Informal Reporting of judicial bullying takes place via a colleague in a leadership position (for example, a Head of Chambers, Circuit Leader, or the Chair of the Bar Council). Informal intervention by someone in a leadership position might be an appropriate option in some circumstances and should be considered.
Bar Council training
The Bar Council organises equality and diversity training.