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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Sexual harassment and barristers

It has been reported that the Bar Tribunal and Adjudication Service (BTAS) is proposing increased penalties for barristers found guilty of sexual misconduct. At present, penalties start with a reprimand and a maximum fine of £3000. The proposal recommends a suspension of at least 12 months. The BTAS has stated that the proposals cover a wide range of types of conduct but it could not agree that what was termed low-level misconduct should attract lesser sanctions. The new rules aimed not only to reflect the nature of the behaviour but to send a clear signal that sexual misconduct would not be tolerated. There is reported to be growing concern that bullying and sexual misconduct are rife in the barristers’ profession. There are now 17,500 practising barristers. Since 2018, 84 barristers have been sanctioned for professional misconduct. It is thought that there is significant under-reporting of cases of sexual harassment. Responses to the consultation by the BTAS include the following:

  • The Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, two of the historic Inns of Court, have commented that the proposed suspension sanction would be disproportionate for less serious offences, which could include telling a crude joke, wolf-whistling, sending a message of a sexual nature on social media or consensual sexual activity with a partner in a public place.

  • Sexual comments which were not found to be grossly offensive should not be labelled as misconduct of a sexual nature unless the conduct was connected with professional life.

  • The proposals amounted to “virtue-signalling”. Sanctions should be based on the facts of the case rather than being used to send a signal to the public.

  • Beyond the Gown is an organisation which campaigns against sexual harassment at the Bar. It has proposed that barristers fund guilty of sexual harassment should undergo training after returning from suspension. Offending barristers should be re-educated and conditions on practice could be used to prevent barristers who have been found to have committed sexual assaults from acting in criminal sexual offences cases.

It has also been reported that a survey by the Bar Council shows the following:

  • 38 per cent of barristers had personally experienced or witnessed bullying, harassment or discrimination.

  • Ethnic minority women barristers were almost four times as likely to experience bullying or harassment than their white male colleagues.

  • Most reported incidents of bullying, harassment or discrimination related to gender.

  • 20 per cent had personally experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination at work in person.

  • The highest levels of bullying and discrimination were experienced by barristers practising in the areas of immigration, employment, financial services and crime.

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