Being Disabled at the Bar: Exploring the professional experiences of disabled barristers through new research
Current representation of disabled people at the Bar
The latest figures from the Bar Standards Board demonstrate that the Bar has a much lower proportion of disabled people than the national average, with 5.9% of barristers declaring themselves to be disabled as opposed to an estimate of 12.4% of the employed working age population. Last year, just 13 pupils at the Bar disclosed as disabled in the whole of England and Wales.
Because the response rate was 49%, there may be higher number of disabled barristers who do not disclose.
Is it important that there is a good representation of disabled barristers within the profession?
A number of arguments exist as to why there are so few declared disabled barristers at the Bar. Some perceive that the nature of the job may preclude disabled people from being able to perform to the best of their ability: external deadlines created by courts, solicitors and procedural legal rules means that it can be difficult for ask for additional time or to mitigate long and intense hours. Barristers are expected to travel quickly between client offices, court rooms and chambers, many of which may be in inaccessible buildings, or on inaccessible public transport lines.
However, through the Equality Act 2010, the law holds that reasonable adjustments should be made, such as to workplaces and timetables to facilitate an individual to be able to complete their job. The legal profession should be seen to be willing to make those adjustments and uphold good standards of practice. It seems wrong that certain courts are only accessible to non-disabled members of the public. There is a growing movement concerned with the wellbeing of lawyers and of people leaving the profession due to burn out and poor working conditions. If the Bar had a larger disabled workforce who had already found new and more flexible ways of doing a good job, such options could be available for everyone.
It would be helpful to have a greater understanding of the actual number of disabled barristers at the Bar. First, more could be done to remove any barriers that are preventing disabled people from joining or progressing. Secondly, it may be the case that those not disclosing their impairment or health condition are doing so because of a perceived stigma- the more that do disclose, the less likely people are to reach a conclusion that there is a stigma and decline to disclose themselves.
Preliminary findings from the 'Legally Disabled' research project
The ground breaking project Legally Disabled, conducted by Professor Debbie Foster of Cardiff University and independent researcher Dr Natasha Hirst, is the first of its kind, which aims to investigate and map out the negative and positive experiences, choices and views of qualified disabled people working or seeking to work in the legal profession.
The project has been going since 2017 and the team have so far collected 55 interviews with disabled people who work, or have worked, in the legal profession. Two online questionnaires have been publicised, one for solicitors and one for barristers. The team are currently collating responses from all this information and drawing up a report, with recommendations, alongside positive success stories.
Dr Natasha Hirst, who has been working on the project said that one of the key findings that has emerged strongly from the project is how integral the early years of practice are for making a disabled friendly profession. They had anticipated that it would be a struggle to progress in the profession but they had not realised quite how difficult it would be to get in at all and, once there, to make requests for reasonable adjustments. Over a quarter of barristers surveyed stated that they did not disclose as a disabled person on anonymous workplace diversity surveys. Dr Hirst said that barristers in their first years of practice were under a lot of scrutiny to get tenancy and the respect of more senior barristers and judges. Because of this they did not want to appear ‘weak’, or ask their employer for adjustments. This has led to people across the profession trying to muddle along without the support they need. This includes a senior barrister who had only recently realised that certain software could help them in court, after encountering another barrister already using this method.
Dr Hirst said there are pockets of good practice, and there was a level of flexibility at the Bar that was not necessarily there for solicitors. There was an example of a court agreeing to sit over four days rather than three to accommodate a barrister’s fatigue and of barristers having agreements with their clerks that if they worked flat out on a particularly difficult case, the clerks would schedule in a break before giving them their next case. However, these pockets of good practice rely on the flexibility and goodwill of individuals rather than any centralised support, guidance or rights. For example, although barristers reported a lower rate of ill-treatment based on disability than solicitors, where there had been ill-treatment the rates of reporting it for barristers were also much lower. One barrister said in interview “who would I report it to?”
The full report and recommendations will likely be out in Autumn this year and the ‘Legally Disabled?’ project will be working with stakeholders across the profession to produce practical recommendations and solutions for change.
In the meantime, Dr Hirst said one easy change that everyone could make is to include a section on their chambers’ website welcoming applications from disabled barristers, outlining accessibility of the premises and explaining how adjustments could be requested, to encourage those applying to have confidence that they will be supported.
About the author
Isabel Baylis will be joining 9 St John Street in September 2020 as pupil in the employment team. She is currently completing the BPTC part time whilst she works as the Equality and Diversity Manager at Matrix Chambers, where she is involved in many projects and is part of the Legally Disabled Research Reference Group, reviewing and providing input and advice on questionnaires.