‘Behind the Gown’: Anonymous Twitter account hopes to expose sexual harassment at the bar

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By Katie King on

As an independent review criticises Matrix Chambers’ handling of allegations, according to report

Social media is key to a group of barristers’ aim to tackle “endemic” harassment in the profession, as the saga surrounding one of London’s top human rights chambers experiences a further twist.

Tweeting under @behindthegown, a group of anonymous barristers “committed to fighting harassment at the bar” believe the profession’s culture of patronage and self-governance — plus its gender imbalance and inherent power disparities between seniors and juniors — leave members vulnerable. They think it’s time to start a conversation about this sensitive topic.

Twitter and other social media websites have in recent months been a vital platform for calling out bad behaviour. With the world reeling over the multiple allegations made against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, men and women have shared their experiences using the #metoo hashtag.

Twitter has been pivotal in challenging bad lawyer behaviour, too.

In mid-October, a number of barristers used social media to reveal that they’d been victims of judicial bullying. Michelle Heeley QC, a barrister at No5 Chambers, said she’d twice been reduced to tears by judges. Lucy Reed, a tenant at St John’s Chambers, said her experience of bullying at the bar was “too hard a story to relive” and had left her feeling “paralysed”.

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Though George Clooney recently revealed Amal Clooney, Doughty Street Chambers’ most famous tenant, had experienced Weinstein-esque situations, a Twitter confessional about sexual harassment in the law hasn’t yet been realised.

With Behind the Gown pushing the topic perhaps it’s just a matter of time, particularly in a climate where accusations against top barristers are making the front pages of nationals.

The Times today reports 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.

His set, Matrix Chambers, instructed retired High Court judge Sir David Calvert-Smith to investigate the allegations. Though the contents of Calvert-Smith’s report, from December 2016, were confidential, we do know it concluded “without hesitation” that Emmerson had not committed any act of sexual assault or sexual harassment. The London set — home to 57 juniors and 36 QCs — “accepted Sir David’s findings”.

Far from done and dusted, The Times then later reported Calvert-Smith’s conclusion “caused divisions at Matrix” and that the chambers decided to commission another review.

This independent review, by Dame Laura Cox QC, has not been made public but, again according to the newspaper, has concluded and 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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