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Bar feeling angsty over its ‘testosterone overdose’

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The Bar Council has hit back at mounting criticism of the treatment of female barristers, insisting that it is taking action to support women at the bar — after a piece by influential barrister David Pannick QC called out the bar’s “testosterone overdose”.

The organisation representing wig-wearers in England and Wales pointed to a number of schemes in place to help women get on at the bar, as well as to report incidents of harassment.

Sexism at the bar has repeatedly hit the headlines in recent days, with senior legal figures raising concerns about the retention of female advocates in what Criminal Bar Association head Chris Henley QC called an “increasingly hostile environment“.

Henley’s intervention was followed by the Lord Chief Justice himself, who said he had “no doubt” that sexism was a “significant feature” of life at the criminal bar. Lord Burnett of Maldon said that inappropriate conduct “should be called out”.

The Chief Justice’s comments were sparked by Joanna Hardy of Red Lion Chambers, who recited a series of indignities suffered at the hands of male colleagues and judges in a thread that quickly became the talk of legal Twitter. Other barristers rushed to corroborate Hardy’s account, with Charlotte Proudman and Harriet Tyce recounting their own negative experiences.

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Yesterday, David Pannick QC of Blackstone Chambers became the latest heavyweight legal figure to weigh in on the row. Writing in the Times (£), Pannick decryed an “overdose of male testosterone” at the bar. This, the public law ace argued, was causing talented women to hang up their gown and hampering efforts to improve diversity at the top.

Pannick suggested that “it may assist if the Bar Council were to create a mentoring panel of senior women barristers, and if the lord chief justice were to set up a similar panel of senior women judges, to advise aggrieved women counsel”.

In a measure of Pannick’s influence, the Bar Council rushed out a statement retorting that “advice and support for women has been and continues to be a priority” and noting the QC’s suggestion of a mentoring panel. It pointed to an existing Retention Panel “specifically aimed at assisting women” and said that it had worked to make it easier for members of the bar to report harassment.

Pannick was heavily involved in a recent #MeToo scandal in his capacity as a member of the House of Lords. When fellow Blackstone Chambers QC Lord Lester of Herne Hill was recommended for suspension by a Lords committee over sexual harassment allegations, Pannick led peers in a vote to veto the suspension. He and other lords argued that the investigating committee had not followed fair procedures in following up the allegations.

Taking to his regular Times column, Pannick insisted that “on the right to a fair procedure, Lord Lester is entitled to say MeToo”. The 82-year-old resigned anyway, saying that the controversy had taken a toll on his health.

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