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More action needed to tackle ‘hostile environment’ driving women from the bar

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‘This stuff is not complicated, so let’s get on with it’, says Chris Henley QC

More action is needed to help tackle the “increasingly hostile environment” facing women at the bar, the head of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has said.

Addressing CBA members in a weekly bulletin, Chris Henley QC highlighted several incidents in which male judges made disparaging comments to women barristers in court. In one example, a male judge, who wanted to sit on until 5pm, told a female barrister, “you should really think about whether the bar is right for you”, after she raised childcare issues.

In another, a young female member of the bar, who was covering a case for a more senior colleague, reported a particularly nasty run with a male judge. She said: “I don’t think I have ever been shouted at like I was by that judge. Completely unacceptable. He acted like a toddler. I have decided to leave the bar for the time being, a big part of my decision to go is the life I am leading as a very junior criminal barrister.”

In a further example, a female barrister with very young children recalls the moment she was rushed to the hospital by ambulance after ignoring health problems in order to attend court. Realising she must now take time off to recuperate, she said:

“So I’ll not work next week. I’ll lose money. No one will pay me sick pay. And all those hearings that I did when frankly I shouldn’t have been working have been covered and not rearranged thus saving the Ministry of Justice money.”

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Stressing it’s important to remember there are “many, many sympathetic, flexible, progressive, modern judges”, Henley conceded that it was “little wonder that so many women (and men) are turning away” from an “increasingly hostile” criminal bar. The Carmelite Chambers barrister continued:

“The hours are punishing and unpredictable, often late into and sometimes through the night, the personal sacrifices are huge, fees are derisory, not remotely stacking up for the necessary childcare or breaks, and the treatment from all directions too often is very unpleasant. Is there another profession whose pay has fallen like ours, and who have to tolerate such awful and deteriorating working conditions?”

Arguing that the time for discussion was now over, Henley added: “It is patently not being taken sufficiently seriously. Many of you are suffering, physically, mentally and financially. Behind the scenes at a senior level there are conversations about e-mail protocols, sitting hours protocols, about a determination to have zero tolerance for sexist and bullying behaviour. This stuff is not complicated, so let’s get on with it.”

The comments come just weeks after the Bar Council’s new chairman, Richard Atkins QC, suggested the bar’s 24-hour work culture was having a detrimental effect on barristers’ wellbeing. With this in mind, Atkins said barristers should not feel obliged to respond to work emails after 7pm.

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65 Comments

Reality

Let’s be frank. The Bar’s ’24 hour work culture’ is driven by (1) courts and the need by legal teams to meet stipulated deadlines, sometimes at short notice; and (2) clients – both professional and lay – demanding quick turn around of work or at irregular times, like late in the evening or at weekends.

It is not surprising that the best work life balance at the Bar is generally found in (e.g. a traditional chancery practice) where the pressures of (1) and (2) are less than, say, with crime. Although better pay helps there as well, as you can get more money for fewer hours.

There is little the Bar can do to change this, unless the courts change their practices and clients their demands. Otherwise, any individual barrister who wants a less 24hr practice will always be at risk of losing work to an individual barrister who is prepared to work at that pace.

The practice of courts and the attitude of clients is unlikely to change in the medium term. Arguably clients’ attitudes are getting worse. It is unlikely to be feasible to introduce blanket regulation to prevent the problem faced by the individual barrister identified above.

Hence, every potential barrister (male or female) needs to consider their own capacity (now and at future stages of their life) to handle the demands of the Bar.

Anonymous

As a barrister with kids, I don’t think it’s that clearcut. It’s easy to decline work that’s obviously going to be urgent (injunctions etc) and possible to manage work otherwise. Of course there are barristers who never say no, and yes you will earn more if you work all the hours god sends, but my experience (in commercial law) is that it’s possible to have a successful practice and a bit of a backbone! It’s very common for parents to leave chambers at 5 or 6 (or earlier) then go back to work if necessary at 8 or 9. Judges insisting that hearings continue after court hours when this doesn’t work for counsel is something I would be shocked to encounter. Def not the norm. In short, there are plenty of parents at the bar with a good work life balance and good careers, so this shouldn’t put anyone off.

Anonymous

And wrt to crime and family, poorer pay means that there isn’t a queue of able practitioners lining up to join these areas. Unnecessarily poor working conditions (eg sexism and manufactured urgency) are going to make anyone with any self respect and ability to earn elsewhere rethink their future in the profession. Rude judges and sexist solicitors are no longer the norm at the commercial bar and there’s no reason criminal practitioners should have to put up with them. Especially since the criminal bar is already seeing a drain of talent, which other areas are less vulnerable to (due to earning potential).

Catherine Newman QC

You are wrong about lack of pressure to turn work around quickly, react quickly etc at the chancery bar. But you are right that we are better paid than the junior criminal bar. However sitting as a Recorder at a London Crown Court last month two male junior barristers asked me to ensure that I did not sit past 4 on a particular day because of their childcare responsibilities. I did accommodate them and I did not mind being asked.

Anonymous

I (a male barrister) once attended a county court trial, in front of a notoriously difficult judge. I had an application to strike the claimant’s claim out.

Before I could make the application the judge started laying into my (female) oppo, in snide, vituperative terms, for every tiny niggling problem with the pleadings and evidence – all of which had been produced by her solicitors, and not by her. Nothing could make him stop. She had barely said or done anything; it didn’t matter.

My strike out application – which was on completely different grounds, but was again related to the solicitors’ conduct – simply prompted another barrage of abuse from the bench.

I felt embarrassed that my oppo’s lay client, sitting right behind her, got such a terrible impression of how the civil justice system works.

The judge did indeed strike out the claim, and as he gave an oral judgment dripping with contempt, I pushed a quickly written note towards my oppo. It simply said “ARSEHOLE”.

I hope that little bit of solidarity helped mitigate what would otherwise have been a thoroughly, undeservedly horrible day at work.

Original poster

In retrospect: I wish the judge had insisted I read the note aloud.

Anonymous

She probably thought you were calling her an arsehole and rubbing salt into her wounds. Well done, bro.

Anonymous

I fondly recall a judge in Bury (no names, no pack drill) who I once saw strike out a Defence on the basis that it was defective due to once referring to the Claimant as the Plaintiff. Counsel for both sides protested, to no avail.

It wasn’t him, was it?

Lord Harley of Counsel

It wasn’t my pleading, whatever you think.

really ?

r/thathappened

Anonymous

The examples in the article don’t really relate to gender, but to peple at the Bar. Not sure its being made out to be a gender issue.

Anonymous

Childcare is certainly a gendered issue sadly – very few men in my chambers are responsible for it, but all the women with kids are!! No reason it has to be like that, but in reality it is. And as another commenter notes, abusive judicial rants also seem to be disproportionately directed at women.

Anonymous

I wouldn’t say child care is a gender issue, as its not solely the responsibility of women. The other commentator didn’t say that judicial rants were aimed disproportionately at women, he gave an example of a male judge berating his female opponent and then berating him, so in his example the rants were evenly proportioned between genders.

Anonymous

“a judge shouted at me so I had to take a career break”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Anonymous

Personally I have been at the bar several years and have only had a couple of occasions when I felt a judge was really rude, and have never been outright shouted at. It’s not the norm in most areas, no reason it should be at the criminal bar. The idea that barristers should just put up is wrongheaded. The people who decide that they are going to stay in a profession despite semi-ritualised public humiliation are the ones who see themselves as having fewest options – the worst not the best.

Anonymous

“So I’ll not work next week. I’ll lose money. No one will pay me sick pay.”

Welcome to the life of being a contractor, you entitled so-and-so. Thousands of paralegals and doc-reviewers etc. deal with the same type of contract and working conditions and get paid but a fraction of what you get, but “oh it’s so unfair”.

Wow.

Ignatius J Reilly

Since when do two wrongs make a right?

Anonymous

It’s not wrong. It’s a personal choice and you can’t complain if you decide to take it.

Anonymous

A Confederacy of Dunces, one might say!

Anonymous

As others have said, it is pretty sexist to assume that only women care for children. It’s also pretty offensive to suggest women fall apart if a grumpy judge shouts at them.

This is also only anecdotal and there is nothing to suggest it is getting worse or to justify the silly phrase hostile environment (which is just a group think dog whistle).

Most important of all THERE IS NO PLAN. So this is just virtue signalling. The cost of which will be the opposite of what the speaker purports to want – young women thinking about the Bar will be put off.

Until we break the link between advancing your career and virtue signalling on this topic, nothing will be achieved save the opposite of what we want.

Anonymous

I think there’s a difference between assuming that only women care for children and acknowledging that overall, women tend to assume the greater burden in childcare, so that problems with childcare disproportionately affect women.

Anonymous

Its debatable whether childcare issues disproportionately affect women nowadays. But the comment in the bulletin is problematic as it suggests that they only affect women.

Anonymous

Well anything is “debatable” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a clear correct answer. Show me the nursery or school in London (or anywhere) where mums don’t outnumber dads at pickup 10 to 1 at least.

Anonymous

Its debatable precisely because it isn’t clear that your view is correct! Your example doesn’t in any way show that childcare problems disproportinately affect women.

Anonymous

The nursery I use it’s actually more often men doing the drop off and pick up, including myself, but hey ho.

Anonymous

Of course it disproportionately affects women. Women make up the disproportionately larger number of single parents.

Anonymous

So what proportion of single parents at the Bar are women then?

Anonymous

“The hours are punishing and unpredictable, often late into and sometimes through the night, the personal sacrifices are huge, fees are derisory, not remotely stacking up for the necessary childcare or breaks, and the treatment from all directions too often is very unpleasant. Is there another profession whose pay has fallen like ours, and who have to tolerate such awful and deteriorating working conditions?”

Um, try working in A&E as a nurse for their pay – now without bursaries, being stuck with huge student debt.

Although I sympathise with how difficult this must be and agree something must be done to improve conditions, comparing your situation to other professions will never get others on side.

The truth is austerity has bitten many, just because it has come to your doorstep and you are finally feeling it don’t expect the rest of the world to sympathise if this is your attitude.

Anonymous

While nurses are the best profession to be compared to (at least with crime) the reality is not the same: nurses earn a monthly salary, get time off when sick, don’t need 6 figures to qualify, aren’t qualified but unemployable, doesn’t take em years to get a traineeship and aren’t more likely to be rejected because they are female and not white. Also, nurses get to do their 12hr shift and go home – barristers are working more like 14-16hrs regularly (if not more). That doesn’t mean that conditions for nurses are acceptable but let’s get real about what we’re talking about here, eh.

The real problem here isn’t the courts system, it’s barristers themselves. A few who insist on working such abusrd hours that everyone else needs to follow otherwise they lose work. If 90% of the Bar decided that regularly working 16hr+ days and not getting to see their families is not worth it, then everyone’s lives would get better. Until then, nothing will change.

Dismayed

I’m a junior female member of the bar looking to have children. I’ve been shouted at by judges, I’ve been ill and admitted into hospital when I should have taken time off sick, I’ve felt forced to take up work at crazy hours because if I don’t the client will go elsewhere and I have a pissed off clerk, I nearly lost my marriage because of it all. The independent bar is broken.

Anonymous

Sorry to read about your experiences. These types of thing are very difficult for all the males and females who go through them.

Another barrister

Oh do bore off, fragile male.

Anonymous

Telling that your response to comments about males and females being abused is to target only the males and not the females.

Anonymous

You don’t need to read between the lines dear, I’m saying explicitly that men who are threatened by women talking about their experiences of sexism are snowflakelike in the extreme.

Anonymous

Which is why its telling that you single out only the males for criticism when males and females comment about abuse. It isn’t sexism if it happens to males and females.

Adrian

It isn’t broken, it just isn’t for you

#Metooatfru

The shouting, bullying and sexual harassment happens to women at FRU too. The harassers then move into practice and continue targeting women because they feel invincible. They get away with it in the voluntary sector and still get away with it when they start getting paid for their advocacy.

Really wish the Bar Council would speak up about abuse in the legal voluntary sector. The number of women who have had their legal careers ended there after mediation and complaining of harassment is considerable.

Anonymous

Sounds horrendous. Suggest approaching the trustees of the charity, bsb/sra (if relevant person(s) is/are regulated), charities commission. Good luck.

#MetooatFRU

Thank you. Ironically, some QC trustees who re-tweet about ‘Behind the Gown’ have kicked out women who have complained about office harassment. The best help has actually been the Inns of Court – they have secured pro bono help at mediation with FRU for women who were harassed.

Lots of people out there visiting the food banks; lots of great advocates who would love to help these people get benefits, but can’t help because they wouldn’t sleep with volunteers who had pupillage and dared to go out with someone else. It’s awful.

Female FRU Volunteer

I don’t understand your comment, would be grateful for clarity. Are you saying that permanent staff members are harassing female volunteers? Or are you saying that certain male volunteers harass other female volunteers?

If the latter, it’s important that the volunteer be reported so that FRU can bar him (if considered appropriate). If it’s an issue within the staff cohort, that is indeed very serious.

Your comments are a little muddled, perhaps to make yourself harder to identify, which I understand.

#MetooatFRU

These were volunteer-on-volunteer issues. There is no legal recourse for volunteers to go to tribunal for a finding of facts. Staff stopped victims from taking on cases and called their clients to give the case to other reps. Some would say that sides were taken. Some would also say that pleas for help and shouting in the office was ignored.

As far as I know, no FRU harassers have ever been reported to future chambers, Inns or the BSB.

There have been mediation sessions, which of course have been horrible for the victims to have to go through and prolong the nightmare. Women have then been kicked out and stopped from taking on cases. I don’t find the conduct any less serious because it’s volunteers and not necessarily staff involved.

Volunteers are at the bottom of the heap here and deserve better.

Anonymous

I don’t know the precise details of the allegations here, but mediation can be highly beneficial in some of these types of situations. Assuming, of course, its done properly.

#MetooatFRU

Inns of Court have (ironically) found pro bono barristers to help victims at mediation with the charity. That is a fact.

We would very strongly urge anyone experiencing harassment and victimisation in the office to go to the Education Department at their Inn. You will not be the first.

Nothing to stop victims being kicked out after mediation. A court cannot force an end to victimisation. Sickening stuff; very hard to know how many are involved. Silence from the wider Bar.

Anonymous

Ironically it might have been better if the mediation had taken place without barristers representing either side. What was the outcome of the mediation?

Anonymous

I would call the bar ethics helpline for advice. if volunteers have been called to the bar any misconduct of theirs can (and should) be reported to the BSB. Not sure if the BSB takes an interest if they haven’t been called (perhaps check this) but if they are a member of an inn there are obligations regarding conduct so reporting to the inn might be an option.

#MetooatFRU

The BSB told victims they couldn’t help because the harassers hadn’t been called.

That’s how they get away with it.

Anonymous

Who on earth is downvoting this? Mishandling sexual harassment so badly that you end up in mediation is a disgusting way to treat volunteers.

FGS, they prepare cases for employment tribunals.

Anonymous

Mediation shouldn’t be thought of as something you end up in as a result of mishandling. Its usually the best way to resolve this type of thing, depending on the nature of the allegations and the abilities of the mediator.

#MetooatFRU

Victims have been kicked out after mediation with the charity. They take time away from work to show up and have to seek pro bono support elsewhere. The self-employed ones also lose income.

No harassers at the charity have gone to mediation. They aren’t kicked out for their behaviour towards other people. They’re laughing.

The problem with mediation as a volunteer is that you have no way of securing the terms of the mediation agreement. There’s no recourse to a court to look at the facts of the harassment either.

The lack of protection for volunteers is terrible. No one is speaking up for them.

Anonymous

Sorry about what is happening. What they’re calling mediation isn’t really proper mediation – both sides need to be there.

BA

Took one case there and got out. Never liked the favouritism and saw a lot of shouting and belittling towards female volunteers.

Hope Legal Cheek doesn’t delete these comments. No one should be canonised as a saint for undertaking voluntary work. Look at Oxfam!

Anonymous

Were the male volunteers shouted at and belittled?

Anonymous

Nope – it seemed as if you sucked up to the staff, they wouldn’t care how you behaved.

Lots of weirdos in the office too – remember one loud guy discussing proudly (where anyone could overhear him) at great length how he got another volunteer to go to dinner with him. Then even more cringey detail about the date itself and rating the woman before a rapt audience. That’s what passes for personal pride at FRU??

I’ve heard shouting by staff too, including “No, you cannot have reasonable adjustments!” and more phones slammed down than I’ve ever seen working for my firm.
Kudos to everyone speaking out.

Anonymous

Was it only males sucking up to staff and slamming down phones. Was the rapt audience all male?

I agree its important that people speak out, and also like to hear the views of the accused, of staff and of FRU management in response to the allegations, as its important to hear all sides.

Anonymous

Yep, denial from one side and detail from the other. I agree that it’s important to hear all sides, but of course people will pretend nothing awful has ever happened to volunteers there. Not surprised to hear about mediations as I found the place chaotic.

I’d be happy to contribute to any independent investigation or journalistic report on bullying at the charity. I have friends from the BPTC that haven’t had great experiences either.

Anonymous

I think it would be good to hear details from both sides. It couldbe the other side accuses complainants of exaggerating or pretending awful things have happened. There are likely to be allegations, counter allegations, denials and counter denials on both sides. A proper independent investigation, taking into account all the information, is to be welcomed. Mediation isn’t that uncommon, and shouldn’t be thought of as a bad thing, it can be useful if done properly.

Anonymous

I’ve done three cases at FRU and literally never seen this. Who was belittling whom?

Anonymous

This was over a few years. I found some people very aggressive and manipulative. I’ve heared women be told by male volunteers “I can’t believe you’re stupid enough to think that!”. I’ve also overheard staff scream over the phone saying “We’re sending a courier over to get the papers from your house right now! You are compromising clients and your career at the Bar is finished!”. Never forgotten that one. Charity money on couriers?? Would volunteers really comprise their clients like that and hold bundles hostage?

Anonymous

Was it only males who were aggressive and manipulative? What was the worst thing you heard a female say to a male volunteer? Were the staff screaming over the phone and using couriers all male, all female, or a mixture of both?

Anonymous

The staff member screaming about the courier (a few years ago) over the phone was female. I’ve never seen anything remotely like that at my firm. Again, not surprised there has been mediation and that women have reported harassment. It wasn’t a strictly ‘boys against girls issue’

Oxfam, Amnesty and others show that not everyone at a charity is saintly.

Anonymous

What you’re describing sounds more like a toxic culture in general rather than one specifically related to gender, although some of the toxicity may have been gender-based. The harassment complaints could have arisen as part of the toxic culture. Would be interesting to hear both sides.

Mediation can be a good thing if used properly.

Agreed, not everyone in a charity is a saint.

Ciaran Goggins

Subconscious phallocentric oppression of wimmin

Fru-Fru

Down with this sort of thing!

Ignatius J Reilly

As a former criminal now civil (male) barrister, I can confirm that the hours are indeed appalling, the pay even worse and increasingly judges are now just bizarrely dressed civil servants whose sole aim is to ram as many cases as possible through the system so that their figures stack up. There is little sympathy extended to anyone whose personal issues impact on that latter issue. However, in my experience women generally get it in the neck much worse than men do, particularly young women. There’s no sisterhood between Bench and Bar either, as female judges seem to be particularly hard on fellow oestrogen excretors. I used to really miss the madness and grim comedy of crime but looking at what my colleagues go through on a daily basis, that soon faded. I can now earn in a day what I used to earn in a week as a jobbing criminal hack and I feel there’s something wrong with that.

Anonymous

Is it in every area you see younger women having a harder time than men or older women? Are there any areas where you see older women or men having a harder time?

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