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Barristers are demanding tougher sanctions for sexual misconduct at the bar

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Regulators are under pressure to dish out more than brief suspensions

Between 19 and 22 January 2021, the bar disciplinary tribunal made professional misconduct findings against four barristers, one on each day.

First came Dominic Woolard, who admitted to “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” involving a junior female colleague, including slapping her on the bottom and pulling her on to his lap. He was fined £6,000.

Then there was Craig Charles Tipper, who also confessed to “intentional sexual touching” of not one but two junior female barristers in what the tribunal said was “capable of amounting to… sexual assault”. This included putting his hand down one woman’s tights and grabbing her breast over her bra. He was suspended for three months.

In between those two cases, the tribunal dealt with two others with no sexual element. One barrister, a 38-year bar veteran, had appeared in court without a valid practising certificate. He was suspended for four months. Another had failed to co-operate with the regulator over previous fines, earning him a suspension of three years.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Many lawyers see a pattern emerging where the regulator hands down tougher sanctions for what might be called purely professional misconduct, like operating without a practising certificate, than for at times quite serious sexual misconduct.

So far as the Bar Standards Board is concerned, this is the system working as intended. As the blogger Crime Girl points out, the official guidance on sanctions says that “inappropriate sexual conduct in a professional context” that doesn’t involve a criminal conviction should normally be punished by a fine or short suspension.

Compare that to a finding of dishonesty against a barrister: the starting point there is disbarment, unless there are “clear mitigating factors”. Sexual misconduct — even if punished with a criminal conviction — only attracts the same default sanction if it leads to jail time.

Crime Girl calls this “out of step with acceptable behaviour in modern society; the threshold to be met before misconduct causes disbarment is far too high”.

The 2021 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

And she’s not alone. Francesca O’Neill, an elected member of the Bar Council, used that organisation’s last meeting to highlight the “profound disquiet and concern of many women at the Bar” over the perceived leniency in sanctions.

Those demanding tougher action seem to be pushing at an open door. Bar regulators recently put out a statement noting the concern and pointing out that sanctions are under review.

Hinting that tougher punishments are coming down the track without following through would be a brave move, to put it mildly.

A case could be made for the status quo. You could argue that regulators are there to police professional misconduct, not odious personal behaviour. Yes, the examples above both took place in chambers, but what about misconduct outside the work context — like upskirting barrister Daren Timpson-Hunt?

If misconduct has already been punished with a criminal sentence, then the person has paid their debt to society. As the current guidance says, regulatory sanctions are not supposed to be “a second form of punishment”.

And if the misconduct wasn’t serious enough for a criminal prosecution, should the person really lose their entire career over it?

But many 21st century lawyers don’t draw bright-line distinctions between personal and professional behaviour.

Cornerstone Barristers recently booted out one of their members, Jon Holbrook, for tweeting that “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour“. Holbrook — who says he jumped before he was pushed — noted that the tweet came from a personal account that didn’t link him with Cornerstone at all; but that made no difference to his former colleagues’ view of his fitness for membership.

While Jolyon Maugham QC has claimed that Allen & Overy threatened to blacklist his chambers after he clubbed a fox to death with a baseball bat. Assuming that’s true (A&O aren’t commenting), it’s a good example of lawyers taking the view that personal behaviour should have professional consequences.

In that sort of environment, tightening the rules on sexual misconduct in or out of chambers is likely to be popular in the profession.

Let’s see how far the regulators go.

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38 Comments

Some Barristers Prey On Students

The anger and lack of empathy you are going to read on here from entitled men tells you everything you need to know about how poorly some of them view women.

That only highlights the necessity of having stronger sanctions for sexual misconduct.

Anonymous

The anger and lack of empathy you are going to read on here from entitled women tells you everything you need to know about how poorly some of them view men.

Oh, too late.

Anon

You really think men who harm women are the victims here????

Anonymous

When the harm done to those men outweighs any harm they have done, then absolutely yes.

Michael

Just stop sexually assaulting women. I don’t understand why this is even a subject for debate? If you assault, the harshest punishment needs to be invoked. That simple. If you have a high sex drive, there are many outlets which don’t involve assaulting your juniors. MY GOD.

Michaela

Just stop implying people are condoning sexual assault. None of the barristers in the cases mentioned were found guilty of sexual assault. Whipping up hysteria and a witch-hunt deserves harsh sanctions by the BSB. That simple. None of these cases involved juniors. If you get a sexual thrill out of seeing men punished, there are plenty of outfits which don’t involve sexually harassing male barristers. My god.

Anonymous

They may not have been found guilty of sexual assault but the facts would amount to a sexual assault had they were tried in a criminal court, and the facts weren’t contested. In one of the cases referred to, the two victims were described as being junior members of the Bar so you’re incorrect to say that the cases did not involve juniors. It’s absurd to accuse people of harassing male barristers by calling for appropriate sanctions.

Anonymous

To types such as “Some Barristers Prey On Students” just adding “entitled” or “privileged” before any group means you can ignore everything any of them say. Sign of the times.

Anon

I just very hope your entitled misogyny doesn’t spill into the way you treat women at work.

You do know that your ‘entitled’ employer and the laws of the land stop you from doing exactly what you please, right?

High St Solicitor

Meanwhile, a junior solicitor was struck off because she left a case on a train

Anonymous

Not true. She was struck off for lying about losing the client documents. It was her dishonesty that led to the striking off.

Anonymous

The regulators have crept into moral judgment too much in recent years, the lower level of punishment reflecting an acknowledgment of mission creep. The criminal law can deal with criminal conduct and the regulators can respond to that. Dishonest or improper conduct on the job as it effects clients is much more the role the regulator and what the general public expect them to consider. The Court of Appeal decision on the Beckwith case should serve to chasten that tendency but I am not confident it will.

The complaints in question seemed to involve actions at the low end of the scale, often involving ill-judged actions after alcohol consumption. I’d be all for a much firmer approach to those who re-offend or commit higher order harassment. But taking away someone’s livelihood over these matters is just wrong, especially if they have only been considered by a regulatory panel.

Barristers At The Job Centre?? Really???

‘…actions on the lower end of the scale, often involving ill-judged actions after alcohol consumption’

Would you consider your wife or daughter being groped on the ‘lower end of the scale’, and thus something you could casually overlook?

Surely you would apply a ‘moral’ judgement in such circumstances?

Anonymous

BatJC, no-one said “causally overlook”. The point being raised was whether the punishments were appropriate, being suspension for 3 months or so. Very poor straw man argument there. Very poor. And yes, I would think the punishments would be appropriate.

Criminal defence trainee

As someone who works in criminal defence, I have to say that these decisions are odd. Other regulators routinely bar people from professions for personal conduct, particularly sexual misconduct. Would we be happy letting a teacher be convicted of sexual assault and continue to teach?

Particularly relevant in my area where many clients are vulnerable or children – but I think relevant in family law and other areas of practise too.

Anonymous

You’re not really in criminal defence, but if you were you’d be in ghd wrong job. Anyone comparing a barrister accused of ‘sexual misconduct’ (much of which isn’t illegal and little of which has resulted in a conviction) with a teacher accused of sexual assault should have nothing to do with deciding what the punishment for barristers should be.

Criminal defence trainee

If you’d like an example of a sexual offence where someone was convicted and not struck off- one of the cases involved someone convicted of upskirting (a sexual offence) who wasn’t struck off, he was in fact suspended for 6 months (BSB v DTH). Another barrister was convicted of GBH and received a suspended sentence at the crown court. The BSB suspend him as well.

I’d expect a teacher convicted of these offences to be generally be barred- as I suspect would you or and most people.

Anonymous

Agreed, the upskirting case you mention is on of the few which resulted in any sort of conviction. I think the 6 months in this case is about right. He didn’t upstart anyone in court and the offence has no relation to what he does for a living, so any more than 6 months would be disproportionate.

GBH isn’t a sexual offence btw. Again, suspension here seems about right, maybe even a trifle harsh given it didn’t happen in court and wasn’t related to his job.

I wouldnt expect a teacher convicted of gbh to generally be barred (unless it was on a pupil) and I don’t think most people would. Generally, once any sentence or punishment has been served then that should be the end if the matter. Otherwise the punishment amounts to a sort of life sentence.

Anonymous

Most barristers don’t want tougher sanctions. The calls are primarily coming from a noisy majority with media connections and an anti-male bias.

Anonymous

Of course it would gladly suit some barristers to be able to harass women with only a slap on the wrist afterwards.

Do you think turkeys vote for Christmas?

Anonymous

Moving from a small group – ie those men that harass women – and then impliedly using it to undermine the views of a larger group – ie barristers as a whole – is extremely poor logic. It is a classic fallacy of composition and lacks any integrity. It seeks to imply that those who oppose stricter sanctions do so because they wish to preserve for themselves an ability to harass women. That is nonsense.

Anonymous

In any case the existing sanctions are hardly a slap on the wrist.

Anonymous

I would call for stronger sanctions on those calling for disproportionate sanctions.

Ameglian Major Cow

I would call for stronger sanctions on those calling for stronger sanctions on those calling for disproportionate sanctions. But then I have deep self-loathing.

Anonymous

Perhaps you do, but calling for disproportionate sanctions seems to be the root of the problem.

Anonymous publicly funded barrister

If I were Allen & Overy I would have blacklisted Jolyon Maugham for showing a massive lack of judgment in thinking that his life was so interesting that he should publish to the whole world that he spends his free time clubbing foxes.

A barrister

No barristers are not.

Kelly

I have had some really awful encounters with barristers, one in particular. I was working away with him on a case and he overstepped the mark a handful of times, putting it very mildly, in the two weeks. It really made me feel uncomfortable continuing with my job and 4 years on I struggle to forget. I was building my career at the time and he was 15 years call. I didn’t feel I could report it.

It is so sad that I am one in many who go through this. I have student friends who have seen much worse and scared to speak out.

The moral of the story, more does need to be done but I just don’t know what honestly.

Anonymous

What you describe is a bit different from what the article talks about, which relates to matters which weren’t connected with the job.

As to what is to be done, it is first important to fully understand the accusations. What were the ‘awful encounters’? In what way did the barrister ‘overstep the mark’? What do you mean by ‘uncomfortable’? What is the barrister’s side of the story? What have the student friends seen?

If nothing changes

The profession is hardly protecting itself when alleged victims do nothing to report their complaints. Look at how the post ends “ The moral of the story, more does need to be done but I just don’t know what honestly.” Seriously? How about reporting a complaint?

anon

Why have you no empathy? Why do you assume women who speak of harassment must be lying? Why do you think students owe you a detailed account of each and every time they were harassed by a barrister? Would you treat a friend this way? What past event made you like this?

Anonymous

Requesting details of what a complaint is about and wanting to hear both sides isn’t the same as lacking empathy or thinking women must be lying.

Anyone wanting an allegation to be considered obviously owes the details of those allegations. Again – What were the ‘awful encounters’? In what way did the barrister ‘overstep the mark’? What do you mean by ‘uncomfortable’? What is the barrister’s side of the story? What have the student friends seen?

A good upbringing and a sense of fairness made me like this.

Any Rep - Not 1st or Second

I am sorry you were treated so terribly.

You are right that this is the tip of the iceberg and that some barristers fully exploit student volunteers, who have no option under law of going to tribunal and having evidence assessed independently.

As you can see, there is very little empathy – the barristers who are reported and who keep their income are still treated as ‘victims’, despite their choice to harm women.

Anonymous

We don’t know at this stage if they were treated terribly or not, or who the victim is, or who deserves empathy.

In what way do some barristers ‘fully exploit’ student volunteers?

Scep Tick

“ If misconduct has already been punished with a criminal sentence, then the person has paid their debt to society. As the current guidance says, regulatory sanctions are not supposed to be “a second form of punishment”.”

Their debt to society, yes. Not to the profession. Members of the public need the confidence to instruct someone who is not a sex pest or other criminal – at least not until they’ve paid a professional price too.

Anon

The profession is part of society.

Scep Tick

So is the teaching profession. Would you be happy with having your kids taught by someone who has a conviction for paedophily but had just come out of prison?

Anonymous

That’s a bad and misleading comparison. There is no suggestiin that any of these barristers are a risk to colleagues or client.

Anyone comparing these cases to paedophilia has lost perspective and shouldn’t have any input into BSB sanctions.

I’d have no problem hiring any of these barristers.

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