News

‘Cancelled’ barrister cleared of misconduct over tweet that got him kicked out of chambers

By on
19

But fined £500 over separate tweet about Muslims

A barrister expelled from his chambers over a tweet about a “stroppy teenager of colour” has been cleared of misconduct by the Bar Standards Board (BSB).

The regulator found that Jon Holbrook was expressing his “personal political opinion on a piece of legislation” when he tweeted in January that “the Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour”.

But it slapped him with a small fine and an official warning over a separate tweet said to “promote hostility towards Muslims”. Holbrook says he will appeal.

The row began on 17 January 2021 when Holbrook — a UKIP member with strong views on human rights and equalities laws — came across a video from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The video outlined how the Commission had supported a mixed-race teenager sent home from school because her afro style hair was against uniform policy.

Holbrook’s take was that “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour”.

Condemnation rained down in response — not least from Holbrook’s former chambers, Cornerstone Barristers, who asked him twice to take it down. He refused, and was expelled, although says he resigned a few days beforehand.

Bar Council head honcho Derek Sweeting QC told Holbrook: “No one doubts your right to express your opinions on social media but there is a constraint on your entitlement to do so. That is because you are a barrister and so subject to specific professional conduct rules which apply at all times.” In April, the BSB confirmed that it was investigating no fewer than 19 of Holbrook’s tweets.

Secure your place: The October 2021 UK Virtual Pupillage Fair

A disciplinary panel has now confirmed that 18 of them, including the “stroppy teenager” comment, did not amount to professional misconduct:

“The Panel considered that the language of your tweet in describing Ms A as the ‘stroppy teenager of colour’ was ill-advised and may give rise to offence. However, it accepted that you were expressing your personal political opinion on a piece of legislation rather than intending to demean or insult another… the Panel concluded that your behaviour in posting this tweet was not seriously offensive or discreditable to amount to a breach of [Core Duty 5] or [Rule C8].”

The same went for 17 other tweets containing personal political opinions.

But the BSB did take issue with another tweet, which is still up:

This was in the context of an 18-year-old extremist beheading a teacher, Samuel Paty, for showing his middle school students cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in Charlie Hebdo magazine.

The panel’s verdict was that “the ordinary reasonable reader would understand the tweet to mean that the Muslim community was to blame for curtailing free speech. The Panel considered this would not only cause offence but could promote hostility towards Muslims as a group”.

The BSB ordered Holbrook to pay a £500 fine and issued him with a warning “to take care to consider how your public posts as a barrister may impact on you and/or the profession”. It added that this is an “administrative sanction” and “does not constitute a disciplinary finding”.

Blogging in response, Holbrook said “the BSB’s conduct in fining me for this tweet is deeply concerning”. He accused the regulator of disregarding “the rules of natural justice”, seeing as “the charge for which I was fined (causing offence and possible hostility to a group) was one never put to me”. He has until 7 September to appeal, and says he will.

The 2021 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

19 Comments

Dusty Wig

It is embarrassing to see our regulator and also “head honcho” take action to the detriment of this thoroughly decent and principled man. Jon happens to think more deeply and speak more freely on crucial public issues than many would like him to. The Bar should not tolerate the ignorance and malice that has driven the action against him.

(156)(54)

Yuck

Can you imagine someone defending Anjem Choudhury because they thought he speaks ‘freely’ on ‘crucial public issues’?

Have the ‘decency’ and ‘principles’ to at least put your real name to your opinions.

(39)(86)

Anonymous

On the “put your real name” comment I’d say this was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, but I can’t because the SRA or BSB might punish me these days.

(48)(6)

As

Pathetic the ever-encroaching power grab of the BSB. Big Brother thought police. The fine for the Hebdo quote is offensive.

(55)(13)

Clapham Omnibus

Would a “thoroughly decent and principled man” have made pejorative reference to someone’s protected characteristic to suggest that they were being unreasonable? I think not.

(33)(66)

Anonymous

He might if like the majority of the English voting population they thought the legislative regime had gone too far.

(34)(6)

Bob

In what way is this sort of thing capable of being professional misconduct?

(53)(5)

No, you don’t have complete free speech at the Bar

If you need to have someone explain to you why tweeting “Free speech is dying, and Islamists are playing a central role” might annoy any future Muslim clients or colleagues, I suggest you should reconsider a professional career in law.

(26)(64)

Mmm

Isn’t one of the main points of free speech to allow you to point out matters that might annoy people?

(38)(4)

No, you don’t have complete free speech at the Bar

Your personal ‘free speech’ overrides your duty to the court and respecting your client or fellow lawyer? Really?

Good luck telling your pupil supervisor that after you call him fat.

(8)(40)

Things that make you go

Except, Holbrook was not in Court and as not dealing with a client or a lawyer. He was expressing his personal opinion on issues with current legislation that many lawyers, and most of the UK public, think has serious problems. Good luck with your legal A levels with your attention to detail.

Non-woke barrister

If you need to have someone explain to you that there is a difference between potentially causing annoyance (whether to Muslims or not) and professional misconduct, then I suggest that you reconsider a career in the law.

And on a more general note, while there may not be *complete* free speech at the Bar, there is no reason why a barrister’s free speech should be more closely curtailed than that of anyone else (save perhaps for very limited exceptions such as commenting publicly on ongoing cases in which one is instructed). Holbrook’s comments were not illegal, nor did they have any bearing on his work as a barrister. There is no reason for them to be any business of the BSB in any way whatsoever (nor for the online lynch mob to pile on, nor for Cornerstone to kick him out, nor for Derek Sweeting to witter on in the sanctimonious and insinuating way that he did, etc, etc).

(17)(5)

Adam

I see the usual legal commentators are defending the Islamophobic tweet. Unbelievable. If the tweet referred to people of any other minority faith would they still defend that tweet?

(23)(70)

Here to Help

Yes.

(7)(1)

Anon

Many thanks for leaping to my defence – Muslim barrister here.

The use of the word “Islamist” makes plain his target. I am actually offended that you, and it appears, the Bar Council, equate Islamist with Muslim. That is as ignorant and offensive as assuming that all Christians are Bible belt fundamentalists.

(23)(66)

Yeh yeah

What about “other Muslims” which was the section that was referred to as breaching the professional obligations? Did you just skip to the comments?

(39)(4)

I must be lost

“the ordinary reasonable reader would understand the tweet to mean that the Muslim community was to blame for curtailing free speech.”

I disagree. I think the the ordinary reasonable reader would understand the tweet to mean that “free speech is dying & Islamists & other Muslims are playing a central role”.

(23)(2)

It is the plot that has been lost

Which also needs to be read in the context of responding to a tweet calling for the closure of Charlie Hebdo showing it was not some generalised attack on Muslims but focused on pressure to censure the political press.

(7)(0)

Just Anonymous

I’m rather baffled and saddened to see that Legal Cheek has censored my comment.

I’m struggling to understand why.

My simple argument is that we are entitled to express reasoned criticism of Islam (just as we are entitled to express reasoned criticism of any other religious, philosophical or political group) and the problem with BSB’s decision here is that it effectively renders such criticism impossible.

Is this an opinion we are not allowed to express on Legal Cheek and if so, why?

(13)(3)

Comments are closed.

Related Stories