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Bar chief writes to all chambers urging zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment

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Days after Twitter account exposing ‘endemic’ problem in profession went live

The head of the Bar Council, Andrew Langdon QC, has written to all heads of chambers asking them to review their policies on sexual harassment and equality.

Bar Council guidance stresses that all chambers are required to have a proper procedure for handling complaints of sexual harassment. This guidance says:

“Where an allegation of harassment is made it is the duty of chambers to properly investigate and consider what appropriate steps should be taken internally… As a chambers, you should make it clear that harassment will not be tolerated in any circumstances and that complaints by pupils and staff will be taken seriously.”

Aside from asking chambers to check their policies, Langdon also urged them to make their tenants aware of the profession’s zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment — a problem that’s true scale is only recently beginning to come to light.

In the wake of a wave of allegations made against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, solicitors and barristers are beginning to speak up about their experiences of sexism, bullying and harassment in the workplace. Solicitor and consultant Caroline Newman bravely shared her story with Legal Cheek, writing:

“[W]hen I was a trainee solicitor I was propositioned many times and sexually harassed on an almost daily basis by two senior lawyers in the firm. They continuously asked me to go out with them. They asked me to come and work with them. They promised me that I would be alright. They would ‘take care of me’. They would make sure that I got kept on in the department. They competed for my attention.”

Soon after, family law barrister Lucy Reed revealed the paralysing effect judicial bullying had on her (without disclosing the particulars of the incident itself). “What I have realised is that I felt all those things that survivors of abuse describe feeling,” she recalled, “all those things that the victims of sexual predators feel: shame, guilt, powerlessness, a crisis of confidence.”

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

In this sensitive climate, a group of barristers have come together in the hopes of tackling what they describe as “endemic” harassment in the profession.

Sharing their thoughts on their Behind the Gown Twitter account, the barristers said: “For far too long, men who have harassed and bullied others have been tolerated, indulged and promoted at the bar”, concluding it’s time to start a conversation about harassment and abuse of power in the profession.

The Behind the Gown tweeters think Langdon’s letter is a good first step. Indeed, it seems the bar chief shares the Twitter account’s aim of encouraging victims to come forward. Langdon, a criminal silk based in Bristol, said:

“I hope that barristers and chambers’ staff who are victims of sexual harassment will always speak up. If the recent coverage encourages them to do so, so much the better.”

But, let’s not assume Langdon’s initiative will fix everything. “[P]olicies are only as good as the person applying them,” Behind the Gown reminds us, so let’s see what chambers do next.

Langdon’s letter comes in the same week The Times reported a new development at Matrix Chambers, whose tenant Ben Emmerson QC was accused of assaulting a woman in a lift. It’s an allegation he “categorically denied” at the time it was made and has continued to deny since.

An independent review, by Dame Laura Cox QC, into the top London chambers is apparently far from complimentary of Matrix’s handling of the Emmerson case. The review reportedly said that some of the actions of senior management at the chambers had been “wholly inappropriate” in a harassment case, and that there were “institutional failings” at the Gray’s Inn set.

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