Barristers urge government to launch new policies on sexual harassment at work

‘There is still widespread harassment taking place in the workplace,’ vice-chair of committee says

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Friday 18 October 2019 17:58 BST
The Bar Council argued there needs to be a new mandatory preventative duty that necessitates employers to protect workers from being subjected to harassment in the workplace
The Bar Council argued there needs to be a new mandatory preventative duty that necessitates employers to protect workers from being subjected to harassment in the workplace (Getty/iStock)

A professional body which represents barristers has called for the government to implement new policies on sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Bar Council, which represents all 16,500 barristers in England and Wales, has lent its backing to a number of proposals the government has outlined in its recent consultation on sexual harassment at work.

It comes after a global study recently found bullying and sexual harassment was particularly prevalent in the legal profession in the UK.

The Bar Council argued there needs to be a new mandatory preventative duty that necessitates employers to protect workers from being subjected to harassment in the workplace.

The council’s law reform committee said: “In our experience the types of measures that an employment tribunal would consider to constitute ‘all reasonable steps’ does not accord with what the majority of respondent employers understand as being reasonable, even employers that consider themselves quite ‘progressive’ in terms of instituting diversity measures in the workplace.”

Eleena Misra, an employment and equalities barrister who is vice-chair of the committee, said: “The legal protections that currently exist within the framework of the Equality Act 2010 are not having the desired result ie there is still widespread harassment taking place in the workplace.

“The Bar Council considered that the law did need to be strengthened in this area.”

She added: “We did also flag in our response that it would be helpful not to see and therefore legislate for sexual harassment in isolation.

“Harassment linked to other characteristics that are protected within the Equality Act 2010 eg race or sexual orientation is no less important.

“The #MeToo movement has plainly highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment, but the Bar Council would not wish for this area of law reform to become anomalous or to impede cohesive reform.”

The body also backed the call for a new Equality and Human Rights Commission’s statutory code of practice on sexual harassment – saying it “would give greater clarity to employers to give employers as to what is expected of them in relation to any new duty”.

It also backed proposals for a longer time limit of at least six months in instances of pregnancy and maternity discrimination for bringing a claim to an Employment Tribunal.

Jacqui Hunt, of Equality Now, a non government organisation which aims to promote the rights of women and girls, said: “We welcome the Bar Council’s support for a code of practice that will provide employers in the legal professions with greater clarity on what their role and responsibilities are in addressing sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct.

“Transparency and accountability are key, and reporting procedures need to guarantee that those coming forward with complaints receive the support they deserve and do not feel penalised or at risk of their career being damaged by speaking out.”

The campaigner noted the legal profession has a “privileged role” and is at the forefront of implementing justice – adding that this requires those within the industry adhere to the highest ethical standards of behaviour.

Ms Hunt added: “By strengthening understanding within the sector about what sexual harassment and gender discrimination entails, and ensuring perpetrators are held to account, we hope this will have a positive ripple effect in how legal professionals deal with these types of cases more broadly within the legal system.”

A report by the Association of Women Barristers released earlier in the month found inappropriate behaviour “still abounds” in the industry.

The study said there were “comments being made by male barristers about the appearance of female barristers and discussing which female barristers they ‘wanted to shag’.”

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Gemma Rosenblatt, of women’s rights organisation Fawcett Society, said: “Recent evidence collected by us shows that women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace feel the responsibility for dealing with it rests with them and not their employers. This is not acceptable.

”There is a shocking lack of protection in the workplace – and sexual harassment remains all too common. Fawcett has long campaigned for the law on sexual harassment to be strengthened and welcomes this important response from the Bar Council.“

A government equalities office spokesperson said: “Sexual harassment is appalling and it must be stopped.

”Our consultation on how the current laws can be improved closed at the beginning of this month. We proposed a number of measures to strengthen and clarify the law so that we can provide explicit protections to anyone who experiences this vile behaviour in the workplace.“

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