Equality for ethnic barristers not quite there yet

Entrants from previously under-represented groups are training to become barristers. But there's still room for improvement, says Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

For women and ethnic minorities interested in becoming barristers, there's never been a better time to enter the profession, says Kim Hollis QC, the first Asian woman to take silk in England and Wales. But there is still room for improvement in the Bar's attitude towards diversity, admits the vice chair of its race and religion committee. "I wouldn't say the glass ceiling has been smashed but it has definitely been cracked," she says.

There's certainly no shortage of new entrants from these previously under-represented groups. According to the Bar Council, 11 per cent of barristers are now from ethnic minority groups, and ethnic minorities accounted for 17 per cent of pupils last year. Forty three per cent of barristers are now women. But if you look further up the echelons, the figures for ethnic minorities and women drop radically and by the time you reach the judiciary, the numbers are worryingly low. While Hollis is confident that the "trickle up effect" will help address this problem in the long-term, she is concerned about so many dropping out before they get there.

"People from ethnic minorities and women - and I fit into both categories - have tended to enter the profession doing the worst paid areas of work: publicly funded crime and family law. This makes staying in the profession incredibly difficult if you want a family. I've got two sons , who are now in their A-level year, but each time I had one of my children, my income dropped to below half of what it had been the year before. You can't do that unless you've got someone supporting you."

Toyin Salako, a 37-year-old barrister adds that for even for mothers who are happy to take on less work, they often feel forced to leave because of the pressures of the job. "The system doesn't allow for the kind of lifestyle a mother leads. If a judge says he wants a skeleton argument on a particular point by tomorrow morning, it wouldn't occur to him to think that perhaps one of his counsel has three children to sort out that night."

Then there's the clerks who give up on working mothers, she says. "If clerks ask you to take on a case, and you can't do it because of family commitments, then you decline again, there's an element of clerks deciding to go for someone else next time who they know is always available."

The findings of an "exit" poll conducted by the Bar confirm that women - regardless of their ethnicity - are leaving for these very reasons. Ingrid Simler, chair of the equality and diversity (sex, sexual orientation and age) committee of the Bar explains, "We sent out a questionnaire to everyone who has left the Bar in the last three years and out of 400 responses, 100 said they left because of childcare responsibilities and another 100 said they left to take up better paid employment in a legal capacity."

In an attempt to address these problems, initiatives are being put into place that she is confident are already having an impact. "A lot of people who responded didn't know if their chambers had an equal opportunities policy. That is a requirement for chambers, and we are working to ensure these policies are communicated so that people know what their rights are," she says.

Mentoring is also becoming a priority. Simler explains, "There are many women who are pregnant or who have had a baby, who feel isolated. The idea of the mentoring scheme is that there is a list of senior practitioners, right through to people lower down, who these women can be put in touch with. It can help even just in terms of having a role model."

In addition, she is developing a returners' course for barristers who have been on maternity leave or have had childcare responsibilities. "It can be quite daunting to come back after a break because it's the sort of profession where you need a lot of confidence," she says. "The course will enable people to re-establish confidence and networks and give them a platform on which to come back. We are hoping the first one will happen in September."

Initiatives are also in place to ensure ethnic minorities don't get a raw deal on their journey up the career ladder within the Bar, says Hollis. Among them is the recent abolition of the "preferred set system" in the South East circuit. "This is something I've been working on for the past three years and it's finally come to fruition," she says. "The problem is that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) used to - and still does on the South-east circuit - only brief the preferred sets of barristers. These are the most established sets and there are not very many of them."

Because under 10 per cent of barristers in these sets are from ethnic minorities or are female, Hollis argues that it is very difficult for these groups to establish a prosecuting career. "It has now been recognised by the CPS - who I know are very committed to diversity - that they are going to assess people individually according to their abilities, and from October, anyone can prosecute."

There are also attempts to ensure that more ethnic minorities and women are able to enter the leading sets of barristers. The problem has traditionally been that ethnic minorities - in particular, those who are black African or Afro-Caribbean - have had less access to contacts within these chambers. In addition, people from these backgrounds are less likely to have gone to top schools and universities, which are highly valued by these chambers. The result is that many of the large commercial sets in particular take on people like themselves - white, male and with an Oxford or Cambridge background. "The good news is that these historical issues are being addressed quite substantially," says Hollis.

It's not just the Bar that is pushing for greater diversity. Clients are increasingly asking organisations for "diversity credentials" when they pitch for work. In fact, many are using the Black Lawyers Directory ( www.onlineBLD.com) that has listings of UK ethnic minority solicitors and barristers and UK organisations with at least one ethnic minority lawyer. The website also provides networking opportunities and careers advice, as well as enabling organisations to advertise job vacancies, tenders and procurements.

Courtenay Griffiths QC, the leading criminal barrister and joint head of chambers at Garden Court, is a supporter. She says the directory is "long overdue because a problem minority lawyers face is one of exposure".

Despite the continuing problems relating to diversity, the Bar is in a completely different place compared to 20 years ago, insists Simler. "So whilst there is no room for complacency about what can still be done, it's important to remember how far we've come in a very short time. And I find that people in the Bar are very positive about the issue; they want things to improve."