09:16, December 02 45 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-02 09:16:08
Sexual harassment at the bar not being reported over career fears, says barrister

Sexual harassment at the bar is not being reported because pupils and young lawyers fear their careers will be damaged if they complain, according to a senior barrister.

Delivering a public lecture at Gresham College in central London, Prof Jo Delahunty QC suggested there was widespread complacency about the prevalence of inappropriate behaviour in chambers and even by judges in courts.

Delahunty, who specialises in family cases and appeared at the second Hillsborough inquest, said she had suffered when she arrived in 1986 as a “blue-eyed, blond-haired” pupil. There were wolf-whistles and name-calling.

On one occasion she went away on a case with a lawyer 30 years older than her. When they checked in at a nearby hotel, she discovered he had reserved a double room.

She had to calculate immediately, Delahunty recalled, whether her professional prospects would be damaged if she objected. She told the receptionist there had been a mistake and insisted on separate rooms.

Nonetheless the senior lawyer barged into her room early every morning while she was still in nightwear. “I was a young pupil in the presence of men who thought they might ‘have a try’,” she said.

As she progressed through the ranks of the bar, Delahunty, who is now professor of law at Gresham College, thought it was a problem of the past. “I was wrong,” she said. “It still goes on, much in the same way as I experienced it, and it is now – as it was then – dealt with alone or with the support of friends and family.”

A Freedom of Information request to the Bar Standards Board – which regulates the profession – from Behind the Gown, a group of barristers fighting harassment, found that the BSB had only received two complaints of sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour towards female barristers by male barristers over the past five years.

Sexual harassment, Delahunty said, is not being reported. “If we don’t speak out about [the perpetrators], they will continue to blight the healthy development of our profession and the young who aspire to join it.”

She said the problem was acute at the bar because of the proximity of older men with great professional self-confidence, working in sets of rooms with younger, “star-struck” lawyers. Being a barrister is a “deeply seductive” profession, she added, delivering huge surges of adrenaline. It involves persuading people about what they should believe.

Another barrister, Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, Delahunty said, endured similar harassment at the start of her career from a senior barrister who started off with “naughty jokes” but progressed to “will you sleep with me?” and then “when will you sleep with me?” comments. “She said ‘no’ unequivocally,” Delahunty said.

A female barrister told Delahunty about a prosecutor at Woolwich crown court at the beginning of her career referring to her as the “bird at the back” after the trial.

In one case another female barrister gave an account of triumphantly prosecuting a sex offender who did not return to the courtroom after lunch. The judge on his high bench observed: “If he had the same view I had, I can see why it would have been a slightly distracting exercise.” Everyone in court ignored the remark.

Bullying is also a problem at the bar, Delahunty said. The Bar Council has set up a confidential helpline to support those suffering harassment.

In an interview with Counsel magazine, another barrister, Elizabeth Prochaska, who helped found the Behind the Gown movement, said: “It is very difficult for individuals to raise their concerns at the bar due to a culture of patronage. Of course, it’s almost impossible to call out individuals who you rely on for work when they behave inappropriately or bully you.”

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