Race bias claim against Bar watchdog to go ahead

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Dec 07, 2017
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The Supreme Court ruled that the barrister’s claim was not out of time

John Stillwell/PA

Bar regulators are to face a claim of racial discrimination after their attempts to strike out a case brought by a barrister failed before the Supreme Court.

Five judges on the UK’s top court, including the president, Lady Hale, overturned a series of lower rulings in finding that Portia O’Connor’s discrimination claim was time-barred.

O’Connor, who is black, is a 14-year call barrister at the professional negligence specialist law firm Pegasus in Birmingham. She alleged that the Bar Standards Board (BSB) had discriminated against her on grounds of race by bringing disciplinary proceedings that ended in her acquittal on appeal.

The dispute dates back to 2010, when the board brought six disciplinary charges against O‘Connor. A year later, five of the charges were proved and the barrister appealed to the Visitors of the Inns of Court.

In 2012, her appeal was allowed on the basis that none of the alleged conduct involved any breach of the Bar’s code of conduct.

In 2013, O’Connor issued race discrimination proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998. The board maintained that her claim was time-barred under provision of the legislation, which stipulated that proceedings must be within a year of the disputed event taking place. 

High Court and appeal judges ruled that O’Connor’s claim was out of time, but the Supreme Court disagreed yesterday, meaning her claim can now go ahead. She did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

A statement from the BSB said: “We note the judgment of the Supreme Court which relates only to whether or not Ms O’Connor had brought her claim against the BSB within the time limits. It will now be for a future court to decide the substance of her claim. Given that the proceedings are still live, it would not be appropriate for us to comment further.”

O’Connor’s law firm acted in the Supreme Court hearing, instructing No5 Chambers in Birmingham. Alison Padfield, a senior-junior barrister at 4 New Square chambers in London, acted for the BSB, instructed by the law firm BLM.

Joining Lady Hale on the bench were Lords Kerr, Wilson, Lloyd-Jones and Lady Black.

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