Our Head of Equality and Access to Justice Aminat Suleman interviewed Race Equality Taskforce Member and BSB Barrister Board Member Professor Leslie Thomas KC during Black History Month 2022:
Aminat also interviewed Lay BSB Board Member Gisela Abbam:
Our Race Equality Taskforce was formed in June 2019, as a key outcome of our 2018 event, “Heads Above the Parapet: How can we improve Race Equality at the Bar?” The Taskforce supports the delivery of our statutory objectives, by advising us on the development of strategy, policy and activity to improve race equality outcomes in the profession.
Five key drivers underpin the Taskforce and its work:
- Our latest annual Diversity at the Bar report, which reveals that although the representation of barristers from Minority Ethnic Groups continues to improve, progress is slow and there the proportion of barristers from Minority Ethnic Groups generally declines at higher levels of seniority.
- Our “Differential Attainment at BPTC and Pupillage” research and accompanying qualitative research, “Barriers to Training for the Bar”, which show that aspiring barristers from Minority Ethnic Groups face additional barriers in entering the profession compared to their white counterparts.
- Our “Women at the Bar” survey and the Bar Council “Barristers’ Working Lives” research, which suggests that barristers from Minority Ethnic Groups are more likely to experience bullying, discrimination and harassment than their white counterparts.
- Our “2019 Risk Outlook”, which cites evidence to suggest that barristers from Minority Ethnic Groups, in general, are likely to earn less on average than white barristers.
Reflecting our determination to convert the recommendations from “Heads Above the Parapet: How can we improve Race Equality at the Bar?” the Taskforce agreed an action plan shortly after being formed. In implementing that plan, the Taskforce has played an important role in the development of our Equality and Diversity Strategy for 2020 to 2022 and the ongoing equality impact assessment of our Equality Rules. The Taskforce has also produced case studies about good practice at the Bar. By shining a light on some of the initiatives that have been set up to address barriers to race equality, we hope to drive innovation and meaningful change in the wider profession, and highlight the importance of inclusive cultures.
The Taskforce will continue to promote greater visibility of Black and Minority Ethnic role models and greater collaboration on the race equality agenda.
In 2022, following a consultation with our Race Equality Taskforce, we published a paper on the BSB approach to racial terminology, available here.
Beyond Minimum Compliance: Compulsory Anti-Oppression Training at One Pump Court Chambers
By Raggi Kotak, barrister at One Pump Court Chambers.
As a specialist immigration barrister, representing vulnerable clients including victims of torture and trafficking, I am used to dealing with the fall out of the rising levels of ‘hate’. Whether that is on behalf of my clients who struggle against a set of procedures designed to make staying in the UK as difficult as possible if you do not have immigration status, or the rising attacks against marginalised communities, which are reflected in the rebellions that we are witnessing throughout the world.
I am a long-term student of ‘Process Work’, which uses awareness practices to facilitate interactions in relationships, communities and society. It is particularly useful in dealing with conflict and social change. I specialise in issues of power and oppression.
I have long recognised that as barristers, we do not manage power very well amongst us. This has been highlighted by the Association of Women Barristers, the Bar Standards Board and the Bar Council, who have produced research about issues of discrimination within the profession.
I also know that there is little discussion about power and oppression at the Bar. Those who experience oppression rarely dare to speak about it in case it damages them professionally. Those that are unaffected, but witness oppressive practices, do not speak about it, because no-one wants to damage relationships with colleagues and create a situation which feels toxic for all.
At One Pump Court Chambers, we have always been committed to equality and justice. We are a democratic collective that was set up to support those that are marginalised.
I wondered if there was something that we could do as a chambers to create an environment that welcomed diversity and inclusion: where everyone in chambers felt like they belonged, where the culture of oppression that sometimes permeates the Bar was eliminated and where every member could thrive, without needing to change themselves to fit in.
Compulsory Anti-Oppression Training for all
In Autumn 2019, I ran my first anti-oppression session in chambers. I challenged a small group of my colleagues to consider how we contributed to dynamics of oppression and how this was affecting us in chambers, with our clients and in our communities.
I started the session by creating a safe space, where we could all learn without judgment. I spoke about how when we start having these conversations, we were likely to make some mistakes. By allowing for those mistakes, we could create an environment where we could all learn. I think this took my colleagues by surprise; instead of bracing and defending themselves, they started to relax.
The next three-hours was a wide-ranging conversation, where we looked at how we are all socialised and conditioned in the dynamics of oppression. We focused mostly on the issue of racism due to the limited time available, while touching on other forms of oppression when raised by participants.
We explored how we are socialised in the dynamics of racism. Most of our experiences, if living in the UK from a young age, centralise white people and show them in positive and diverse ways. These include our education; our families; media; advertising and television.
On the other hand, the experiences of racialised people (to include terms such as BAME and people of colour etc.) are stereotyped if they are portrayed at all – such as depicting black people as criminals; Muslims as terrorists or East Asians as the carriers of Covid-19.
This creates a level of privilege or power, which supports white people over those that are racialised. Our patterning keeps us within these dynamics. This patterning is based on how we are set up emotionally to be manipulated by these dynamics; how we develop unconscious biases (the shortcuts our brains make to process the enormous amount of information we experience, based on what we already know); our built in preferences to relate to those that are the most similar to us and the hierarchical structures of power that permeate our societies.
We looked at common outcomes from this patterning and how we can with greater awareness, challenge these outcomes to create more inclusive ways forward for the whole.
The session went really well. The feedback from members included: “A real game-changer, every barrister should do this training’ and ‘This training provides a unique opportunity to sit with some uncomfortable but hugely important ideas and learn. All workplaces should offer this.”
A few weeks later, chambers unanimously voted to make the training mandatory for all barristers and staff. We were aware that other jurisdictions, such as New York and Ontario, already had compulsory equality and diversity training for all lawyers. We believe that this has positively influenced a different culture in relation to equality and diversity training participation, in which all lawyers are expected to apply good equality and diversity practices.
We felt that we needed to step forward and create an environment where racism and other forms of oppression were not a part of our chambers, even unconsciously. It was agreed that everyone would attend a basic level training and that I would hold more advanced sessions for members who wanted to go deeper with the issues. Unfortunately, the pandemic has put these more advanced sessions on hold, for now.
Having implemented this training at One Pump Court Chambers, I am hoping that other chambers will follow our lead. That they will also consider having compulsory training, to create more legal spaces where anti-oppression is at the heart of our working lives. To step forward, as much of the world is stepping forward, to ensure that all of us at the Bar are able to really say that we believe in equality and justice for all.
We are aware that there are initiatives to prevent discrimination at the Bar – such as the Pupils’ Helpline, run by the Bar Council. Our concern is that it is very risky and difficult for someone in a vulnerable position to report another, even if it is anonymous.
One of the aims of compulsory training, is to help the Bar to monitor itself. If everyone is trained as to what is and is not ok, then it is a lot harder to get away with being oppressive. A witness will be more likely to call it out when they see it. A marginalised person who faces racism or sexism or bullying will know that these issues have now been brought out in the open, and feel that they are more likely to have support from others in their Chambers. It is about changing the culture of the Bar from within, to ensure that there is a zero-tolerance policy towards discrimination.
‘Access to the Bar for all’, not the few: how long-term mentoring schemes for young people can tackle the root causes of the lack of diversity in the legal sector
By Charlotte Ogilvie, former Marketing and Communications Executive at Garden Court Chambers, now a Social Innovation Fellow at Year Here, a platform for professions to test and build entrepreneurial responses to inequality.
In 2017, Garden Court Chambers founded ‘Access to the Bar for all’ to address the under-representation of women, ethnic minorities and people from low socio-economic backgrounds at the Bar. “The reality is the Bar is not anywhere near as diverse as it should be”, says Khadeza Ali, one of six women in the first cohort of the scheme. “If you want to have good lawyers, and you want to have justice, then naturally you have to have a wide range of people who are actively encouraged to access the Bar.”
In November 2016, a series of undeniable instances of inequality in the legal profession demanded, and loudly so, a remedy. Firstly, Leslie Thomas QC, Chair and Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers, attended an awards ceremony where he saw “less than a handful of black faces in a room of almost 300 people”. In the same month, Garden Court Chambers ran an open day for potential pupil barristers, where it was clear that the majority of attendees from particular socio-economic backgrounds had no experience in chambers, no contacts, and no support. Various members of chambers heard the call, and this month of stark realisations sparked ‘Access to the Bar for All’.
Young people from under-represented groups need to be approached, and offered support, before they decide that the legal profession is not for them. This belief is central to our pioneering and award-winning mentoring scheme which offers 16-year-olds from some of the most economically deprived areas in London mentoring, paid work-experience, and the possibility of a £7,000 per year living expenses scholarship for students who choose to study law at undergraduate level.
After Chambers passed a motion to run the scheme, Mia Hakl-Law, Director of Operations and HR, sent out a request for six tenants to commit to volunteering as mentors over a five-year period. Twenty barristers volunteered within 30 minutes. All funds for ‘Access to the Bar for all’ come from Garden Court’s Special Fund, which every member of Chambers contributes to through a percentage of their yearly earnings. The Special Fund predominantly makes donations to small, progressive, cutting-edge organisations doing legal, campaigning, or charitable work in defence of civil liberties and/or access to social justice. The cost of supporting six mentees over the duration of the scheme is manageable and places no financial burden on individual members of Chambers, as they are paying the same into the Special Fund as they were before the scheme was set-up in 2017.
Di Middleton QC, barrister at Garden Court Chambers who was previously a mentor through the scheme, says: “Initially the money seemed like a really important benefit… Yes, it’s part of it”, she continues, “but it’s so much more than a financial assistance scheme”. What holds even greater weight and makes ‘Access to the Bar for all’ so unique, she believes, is the long-term relationship, the exposure that comes with it and consequently the sense of belonging. There is a “constant channel” between the mentee and their mentor, Chambers and the legal profession more widely. Giving someone the opportunity to “knock about” in Chambers, to meet barristers, attend social functions, go into court, and to have someone on the end of a phone or an email who is invested in them is invaluable, she says.
Exposure, both for young people from diverse backgrounds, and to them, is vital to making change. “If someone different is right in front of you, naturally your mind is going to start thinking about them,” says participant, Khadeza Ali, who explains that over time she has learned to be more sure and confident of her more “obvious” differences. “I am of a BAME background. I am a Muslim. I am a woman. I’m Hijabi. When people see me they are forced to think how to make inclusion happen.” In addition, she says, the experience of going into court over a number of years is continuing to push her to grow in confidence in a setting that she initially found “uncomfortable” and “daunting” as she is “often the only person who looks like [her] in the court room.” “I’m still working on the confidence”, she says, “but until I get there – I present as that.”
Tomi Adagunodo, mentee on the scheme, shares that on her first day of work experience, at Luton Crown Court, she was “the only girl… and the only black person.” Reflecting on it, she says, “It’s quite shocking to see the lack of ethnic minority practitioners at the Bar. It’s usually the ethnic minorities who are the defendants and that’s really sad”, she says. “I remember shadowing Ann Osborne”, Tomi says. “She’s black. I could identify with her… and it was inspirational to meet someone like me in a job like this. I think it’s important to be able to see people who look like you, who sound like you, and who come from the same background.” Nazia Islam, also on the scheme, says that “she love[s] that this scheme is aimed at girls – it’s been amazing being around such intelligent women… It’s great to have such impressive role models – especially women from similar backgrounds to me.”
Diversity schemes such as “Access to the Bar for All” are necessary to encourage and support people from all sections of society, and especially those who aren’t always able to enter the legal profession without them. Nazia Islam maintains that they will not only benefit the individuals taking part, but the legal profession and justice system more widely. She says, “We need to have more women representing women on women’s issues, and more practitioners from diverse backgrounds representing the diverse communities that make up our country”.
In order for the Bar, and the legal sector more widely, to remain both credible and relevant it must go far beyond just recognising its own lack of diversity. The current underrepresentation of women, people from BAME[i], and low socio-economic backgrounds clearly shows that the legal profession as we know it does not select from everyone, but from the few. In recognising that race, gender, or socio-economic background should not act as barriers to inclusion, we should be jolted into action. Di Middleton QC, says: “If every chambers took on even one young person and carried them through university – whether through mentoring, work experience, or financial assistance – imagine how many people could be helped and the impact that it would have.”
Mia Hakl-Law, Director of Operations and HR, says: “We hope that many other chambers and law firms will set up their own long-term schemes to address the lack of diversity at the Bar and tap into the rich vein of talent available from underrepresented groups, who have so much to offer the legal profession.”
Mia is happy to be contacted in relation to the scheme and offer guidance, provide further information or answer any in-depth questions.
‘Access to the Bar for all’ was awarded Diversity Initiative of the Year (2017) at the UK Diversity Legal Awards. In 2019, it was awarded Outstanding contribution to Diversity and Inclusion at the Chambers UK Bar Awards.
At the time of writing, Garden Court Chambers is believed to be the most diverse set in the country. 48 per cent of our barristers are women and 26 per cent of our barristers are from ethnic minorities. 58 per cent of our staff are women and 26 per cent are from ethnic minorities. We believe that chambers and the legal profession more widely need our actions to speak louder than words, and advocate for diversity and inclusion by showing, not telling.
*Charlotte Ogilvie wrote this article while she was a staff member at Garden Court Chambers.
 We are aware of the debate around the term ‘ethnic minorities’ and that there is no current consensus within the profession on terminology, and as such, will use this, alongside BAME, throughout the article. We hope that this does not cause any offence, and welcome your views on your preferred term.
[i] See footnote (1) RE: terms.
 The Taskforce is an advisory body, established under paragraph 14(3) of the Constitution of the BSB.