I've seen how lawyers' sexism corrupts justice. This is how to change the industry
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Surprise, surprise: bullying and sexual harassment is rife in the legal profession. Yet another report, this time from the International Bar Association, shows that 62% of female lawyers have been bullied in the UK, which is higher than the international average, and 38% of women have suffered sexual harassment.
The findings accord with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) report in 2016, which found that two in five respondents suffered sexual harassment and discrimination and only one in five reported it.
Whenever women are under-represented in the workplace and men’s power is unaccountable, sexual harassment is prevalent
Sexism is part and parcel of the institutional fabric of the legal profession. But we already knew that, as the #MeToo movement highlighted, whenever women are under-represented in the workplace and men’s power is unaccountable, sexual harassment is prevalent.
Valuable time and money spent on this latest research could have been better spent on formulating radical measures to end harassment rather than another survey that merely confirms the existing problem.
The report made 10 recommendations, which include: “raise awareness … spread the word” and gather yet more “data”.
But talk of “change” has become stale and repetitive, grounded in vacuous aspirations, such as the need to “maintain momentum”. These soft proposals have no legal bite and will not transform a profession where misogyny is the norm rather than the exception. We need a radical, structural overhaul of the bar. Here are three bold proposals.
1. Tough sanctions for sexist behaviour
Women rarely report sexual violence. In 2017-18 the Bar Standards Board received eight complaints of sexual harassment about barristers and only two resulted in disciplinary action. Discipline is tantamount to a slap on the wrist.
Two months ago, barrister Kevin Barry, of The 36 Group in London, was found to have engaged in unwanted sexual conduct in trying to kiss a woman, placing his hand down her skirt, squeezing her bottom and putting his hand on her thigh. Barry was reprimanded and fined £3,000.
What can be done to encourage women to make complaints and discourage men from engaging in sexual harassment? We need tough sanctions for findings of sexual harassment to highlight the severity of the conduct. The perpetrator ought to be suspended from the profession, while undertaking an intensive training programme on gender-based violence, paid for by them. Once a report from an independent expert shows a change in attitude and behaviour of the perpetrator, they could be reinstated.
Barristers are entrusted with bringing perpetrators of sexual abuse to justice, while also engaging in the same reprehensible conduct. The hypocrisy and potential conflict of interest appears lost on the Bar’s regulatory body. When barristers hold misogynistic views, it is no wonder that they throw around gender stereotypes in court and readily blame women and girls for their own rape. Indeed, a queen’s counsel was reprimanded after implying a victim was responsible for sexual assault by her stepfather.
2. 50% target of women in chambers
We need a 50% target of women in all chambers. I have long supported quotas for women at the bar. Men make up 85% of queen’s counsels and 72% of the judiciary. Women remain disempowered from shaping the very laws that impact upon their lives. A healthy democracy requires that our legal profession represents our diverse society rather than a niche demographic of white, upper-class men. Gender parity can also have a positive influence on workplace culture and even reduce sexual harassment.
3. An office for gender equality and diversity
We need an independent office that is responsible for furthering equality and diversity at the bar. This would handle all complaints of sexual harassment about barristers. It would provide a long-term vision for equality and diversity with key targets each year.
One of these targets would be to address the gender pay gap, a taboo subject in much of the legal profession. I have seen endless examples of male barristers charging double or even triple that of a woman with the same experience for the same case.
Court times need to be fixed to ensure that caregivers have a consistent schedule and time to complete paperwork after court.
The legal profession is rife with prejudice – I’ve seen it first-hand | Charlotte Proudman
Legal aid cuts affect women who often undertake lower paid, publicly funded work. For example, a barrister could be paid just £81.50 for a domestic abuse case. This is less than minimum wage when taking account of time for preparation, the court hearing and travel.
Self-employed barristers receive no remuneration during parental leave. Chambers could consider providing a rebate for new parents.
The law needs to reflect society that we want to live in: equal, fair and just. Without bold changes to the industry that are so desperately needed, the profession will not be fit to uphold the values it is supposed to represent.
• Charlotte Proudman is a human rights barrister specialising in violence against women and girls
UK criminal justice
Gender pay gap
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