Law: Take a pair of gentle: Two women share the task of tackling sexual and racial discrimination among barristers. Sharon Wallace finds out how they plan to do it persuaders

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Bar Council has taken the unprecedented step of appointing job-sharers to a top post. The new role of equal opportunities officer is to be taken by Kathryn Hamylton and Pamela Bhalla, who began work last week.

The job share was not planned, according to a Bar spokeswoman, Rachel O'Driscoll. 'It happened that of the people we interviewed, they were the best for the job,' she says.

The post itself is a departure for the Bar Council. It has its roots seven years ago in the foundation of the Bar's race relations committee. In 1989 the committee commissioned an ethnic monitoring survey of the barristers' profession which indicated that there was discrimination, says Ms O'Driscoll. It showed that 6 per cent of barristers in independent practice, 10 per cent of new tenants (newly qualified barristers) and 12 per cent of pupils (trainees) were from ethnic minorities.

'At first glance the figures seem high, but in fact more than half were to be found in only 16 sets of chambers,' she says.

Last October the Bar Council approved a race equality policy covering all stages of a barrister's training and areas of practice. In January the Bar established a sex discrimination committee and appointed an equal opportunities consultant, Dr Marie Stewart, to advise on strategy for policy implementation. Dr Stewart has prepared an equal opportunities code of practice covering discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and disability.

'Our main job will be to advise on implementation of the code,' says Ms Bhalla. 'We will be advising the Council for Legal Education, the Inns of Court and individual sets of chambers, as well as dealing with queries from students and others about pupillage and courses. It's a wide brief.'

Another aspect of the brief will emerge later in the autumn after a survey, carried out by the Bar Council with the help of a grant from the Lord Chancellor's Department, of the position of women at the Bar. The survey is investigating whether women find it more difficult to obtain pupillages or tenancies at the beginning of their careers; how women are treated in chambers; whether provision is made for maternity leave; whether women find it easy to return to practice after maternity leave; and whether they tend to specialise in particular areas of law, such as family or crime.

'A major part of our job will be to implement the recommendations of that survey,' Ms Bhalla says. 'We want to give it our full attention and publicise its findings.'

Seventeen of the Bar Council's 110 members are women. In the practising Bar there are 1,395 women out of a total of 7,180. Of 768 QCs, only 41 are women; and of the 69 QCs appointed this year only seven were women (and only one was from an ethnic minority). However, women account for a much higher proportion of pupils - 322 out of 796. 'There is probably a high drop-out rate of women at various stages of their careers,' Ms Bhalla says. 'That is the kind of thing the survey will uncover.'

The two equal opportunities officers are discussing how best to split their work. 'One of us will probably concentrate on the Council for Legal Education and the success rates of its ethnic minority students,' Ms Bhalla says. 'The other will take the lead in monitoring progress generally across the Bar, reviewing data, making recommendations and developing policy.

'Together we will advise individual sets and we will share the work of developing good practice and equal opportunities models, and reflect the work already done on the code by the consultant. We also intend to highlight any good practice that we come across.'

The two plan to overlap their working days in the middle of the week. 'I expect we will also spend a lot of time in between on the telephone to each other,' Ms Bhalla says. 'It's very important to get on well with your job sharer.'

Ms Hamylton is conscious that job-sharing is an unfamiliar concept to barristers. 'I hope we can organise the job so that people are not aware that it's done by two of us. We will naturally work in discrete areas, otherwise it would be unworkable,' she says. She sees the job as a challenge for them both. 'It's a new post and in terms of the Bar's equal opportunities policy, it is breaking new ground.'

You can never say that anyone is doing enough on equal opportunities, she believes. The Bar is, however, responding to the issues brought before it. 'It is doing a lot - the survey of women, for instance. I hope it will contain recommendations that will pinpoint our work for two or three years.'

Ms Hamylton is herself a barrister. She has worked at the Race Relations Board, spent 15 years at the Commission for Racial Equality, and for the past 18 months, until her appointment at the Bar Council, was equal opportunities consultant for Boots.

Ms Bhalla also worked at the CRE for 15 years, and before that for the United Kingdom Immigration Advisory Service. She has some experience of job-sharing, having done it for a year during her time at the CRE. 'A job-share is helpful in a situation where you have a new post in a new area: we can provide each other with a certain amount of support. That is one of the pluses,' she says.

The job will be different from most equal opportunities work, according to Dr Stewart. 'Many of the ways in which you might manage change in traditional organisation do not apply,' she says. 'The Bar is a profession with no traditional bureaucracy,' she adds. 'There is the stick of the sex discrimination and race relations laws and the fundamental principles of the Bar's code of conduct. But after that it is a process of persuasion and education.

'It is one of the more challenging equal opportunities jobs around, and one of the most important.'

(Photograph omitted)