Barristers feel they cannot talk about workplace harassment and bullying because such discussions could trigger self-reporting obligations, the Association of Women Barristers (AWB) has said.
In a report prompted by a roundtable discussion, the AWB says that bullying is ‘rife’ at the bar and sexual harassment is also common.
Inappropriate behaviour in robing rooms and bar messes ‘still abounds’ the report says, citing roundtable participants who overheard male barristers ‘discussing which female barristers they “wanted to shag”’.
Another issue was ‘non-existent or poor facilities’ for women and non-binary people at court centres. The report states: 'We are concerned [for example] about the fact that there are sometimes no private facilities available at certain court centres where a woman can extract and dispose of breast milk’.
According to the report, despite the prevalence of inappropriate behaviour, barristers feel they cannot discuss it because of regulatory self-reporting requirements.
The current rule states: ‘If you are a Bar Standards Board regulated person and you have knowledge and/or information which gives you reasonable grounds to believe that another BSB regulated person has committed serious misconduct, then you must report this to us promptly, as explained in rule C66 of the BSB handbook.’
The AWB said: ‘Participants thought that some kind of waiver from reporting should be available – so issues that could amount to reportable serious misconduct could be discussed without the without fear of a report being made.
‘The participants would welcome some sort of reporting-waiver either for individual cases or generally (for example to permit individuals to share their personal experiences in a working-group environment in order to assist those drafting anti-harassment and bullying codes in the future).’
The BSB is currently piloting waiver schemes in which groups of trained barristers can seek permission for the requirement to report harassment directly to the BSB to be waived in certain situations.
The regulator said the pilot schemes exempt individual barristers, providing they are properly trained and participate in identified support programmes, enabling them to provide advice and support to a person who may have experienced harassment. Six pilot schemes have been approved and the regulator said it will monitor the effect these have on reporting.
The AWB report was co-authored by Lynne Townley, City Law School lecturer and AWB chair, and her Honour Judge Kaly Kaul QC.