Comment

The Judge Rules: Chambers have a niggling problem with sexual harassment

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Bar authorities have done well with recent £4,000 fine, but the hearing process needs to be more open

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Only the most unreconstructed, crusty male dinosaur would argue that sexual harassment in the legal profession — or anywhere else, for that matter — is remotely acceptable.

Thankfully, the days of bottom pinching peppered with lascivious remarks and the strained invocation of winking innuendo have been consigned to the misty-eyed memories of dying generations.

Or at least that is the case, for the most part, at law firms. The bar, on the other hand, is arguably a different environment all together, one where the brontosaurus and the tyrannosaurus still roam freely.

Graphically highlighting that difference were reports of a bar disciplinary tribunal hearing involving a pupil master at 1 Gray’s Inn Square. David Giles — a 27-year-call civil law senior junior — was slapped with a £4,000 fine for engaging in “conduct of a sexual nature towards his pupil, which was wholly inappropriate”.

Bar authorities should be commended for taking the allegations seriously, investigating them and then handing down a significant financial penalty when they were proved to have merit. But could the Bar Standards Board do more?

Yes. Its tribunal should have heard the case in public to demonstrate that the profession is not the old boy’s network it once was.

Conducting the disciplinary hearing in private may have spared the blushes of all the parties — including the innocent complainant — but the process smacks of a cosy club sorting its dirty linen behind closed doors.

Pupil barristers must be reassured that their concerns will be given a fair hearing; those in the dock, as it were, also need to be reassured of the fairness of the process. But barristers generally need to be put on notice that the disinfectant of daylight will be used to flush out poor behaviour.

And bar scuttlebutt suggests a good scrubbing might be required. Some claim that harassment is a far greater and persistent problem in that branch of the legal profession than on the solicitor side.

That stands to reason. Law firms are much bigger operations, with partnerships employing large numbers of staff. That includes sophisticated personnel (oh, all right, human resources) departments that are well briefed on the law and experienced in implementing proper modern working practices.

In contrast, while the chambers structure has advanced in the last 15 years, it still involves a grouping of self-employed practitioners. The creation and enforcement of acceptable modern office behaviours can, in some chambers, be the responsibility of absolutely no-one.

In theory, protections are in place. Chambers tend to use management companies to employ clerks and other staff, as well as pupils.

That means legislation kicks in. Section 47 of the Equality Act 2010 specifically refers to the bar, stipulating that barristers must not harass pupils. And harassment under that legislation is in part defined as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”.

Human interactions can be difficult and messy. It is impossible to impose an absolute behavioural template — and even if it were possible, doing so would surely take all the fun out of life.

However, lines must be drawn. Cracking into the legal profession — and especially the bar — is difficult enough for young aspirants. They do not need the added difficulty of having to weather the unwanted sexual advances of senior lawyers, fearing that if they make a fuss, the first step on the career ladder they have just negotiated could be snatched from them.

Bar officialdom has done well to deal with this latest matter. In the future, it needs to deal with it in a more public forum.

Previously:

1 Gray’s Inn Square silent after barrister fined for inappropriate sexual conduct towards pupil [Legal Cheek]