Reforms to tackle racism at the Bar

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The Independent Online

Reforms of the way barristers are recruited and appointed to senior positions are to be introduced because female and ethnic-minority lawyers still experience widespread discrimination.

The 50 new measures will try to address concerns that the Bar is dominated by white, middle-class men. The overhaul follows an investigation by a senior judge, Lord Justice Thorpe, into how the four ancient Inns of Court have responded to the Stephen Lawrence report on institutional racism. His inquiry exposed serious flaws in the profession's equal opportunities code. It is expected to fuel further claims that the Bar, like the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, is guilty of institutional racism.

Lord Justice Thorpe found that fewer than 10 of the 1,000 Benchers, or senior barristers, responsible for running the Inns of Court, come from an ethnic minority.

He also highlights the low proportion of women among the Benchers. His report concludes that the Inns have not done enough to redress the balance of both female and ethnic-minority barristers in positions of influence.

The Court of Appeal judge found that the system for awarding scholarships at the Bar favours white candidates. They are twice as successful as their ethnic-minority counterparts in securing the £2m of discretionary funding.

"[The figures] form a pattern indicating a systematic bias in favour of whites and against students belonging to other ethnic groups," Ahmad Ebrahimi, a statistician who worked on the report, told Legal Week. The magazine said the report's authors had concluded that some of the findings were "seriously disquieting".

A spokesman for the Inns, which announced the reforms yesterday, said the inquiry had examined how the Inns' equal opportunities code, in force since 1997, was working.

The reforms covered applications for Inns' membership, scholarships, grants, pupillage, pastoral care and training, discipline and grievances, Benchers, other governing bodies of the Inns, staff and equal opportunities policies, he said.

Last month an Inns disciplinary tribunal suspended a senior barrister from practice for making racist remarks. Gordon Pringle, who called a black solicitor's clerk a "blackamoor" and cast him in a demeaning role in a story he told during a break in a court case, was also fined £1,000.

The Bar Council, which brought the prosecution, said it was "regrettable" that any barrister considered it appropriate to use such language.

It added: "We hope that the result of this case will send a strong signal both to barristers and to members of the ethnic minorities that the Bar Council will act firmly against barristers where there is a prima facie case of racial discrimination or harassment."

Last year, Cherie Booth QC called on the Bar to make itself more accessible to working-class studentsand to end the domination of white, middle-class males.

She said it was not unusual for trainee barristers to have debts of £10,000.

Earlier this year David Bean QC, the new chairman of the Bar, also addressed the problem. He said: "The long-term prospects for the Bar will only be good so long as we ensure that newcomers to the profession really are the best and the brightest, and not simply those who can afford it."