RICHARD MILLS for The Times
Young barristers are vulnerable to sexual harassment in chambers, a leading female QC has warned, urging junior lawyers to speak out at what she says is a watershed moment.
Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, QC, told The Times: “At the Bar, young women and some young men are vulnerable because they are in a highly competitive world seeking training places and tenancies and briefs.
“There are many people who might seek their favours to advance their career. Stories abound and chambers should have clear rules and be swift in ending the tenancies of people who abuse their power. But it is still too hard for women to speak out.”
Lady Kennedy, the Labour peer and human rights lawyer from Doughty Street Chambers in London, was speaking as several hundred barristers gathered at the weekend for their annual conference in London, which was sponsored by The Times.
Last year a survey of 1,300 female barristers by the profession’s watchdog, the Bar Standards Board, found that two-fifths of respondents said that they had been subject to sexual harassment but only a fifth went on to report it. Others stayed silent for fear that speaking out might damage their careers.
Of those who did report the unacceptable behaviour, only half were happy with the response. The respondents also reported serious cases of discrimination at the Bar.
The Bar Council has since published a guide for chambers on managing sexual harassment and sets are required to have a harassment policy.
Tackling sexual harassment is also part of regular training provided by the Bar Council for barristers, chambers’ clerks and other staff. The council has also set up a confidential hotline for reporting of incidents.
‘Far too many’ women leave the Bar because of bullying
Another well-known female silk, Felicity Gerry, QC, a serious crime specialist at Carmelite Chambers in the City of London, told The Times that the problem of harassment had forced some lawyers to leave the profession.
“We have lost far too many good women who have left the Bar due to discrimination, harassment, bullying and pressure of inflexible administration,” Gerry said, adding that the “Bar Council has done some really good work addressing these issues over the last few years and I believe things are better now than they used to be largely because there are now more senior women for support”.
Last month another leading barrister, Jo Delahunty, QC, a professor of law at Gresham College who practises from chambers at 4 Paper Buildings in the Temple, gave a speech describing a client conference she had attended when training for the Bar. “When chair space was limited a client offered me his knee to sit on and the only reaction was laughter within the room, including from my pupil supervisor,” she said.