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Barrister gender and ethnicity under regulator’s spotlight

BSB complaints-handling process not discriminatory but might favour women, report finds

25 February 2016

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Ethnicity 'no longer predicts' which barristers receive the most complaints, but gender may play a part, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has declared.

New research, based on an analysis of three years' worth of complaints between 2012 and 2014, found that ethnicity 'no longer significantly predicts' whether external grievances are closed by the regulator.

However, when considering complaints raised internally by the BSB, black and minority ethnic (BME) barristers were found to be more likely to feature than their white colleagues.

The findings also suggested that female barristers were less likely to be referred for disciplinary action than their male counterparts.

Since its formation in 2006, the BSB has monitored the way complaints are dealt with in an effort to minimise the potential for unconscious bias in the process.

The aim, the regulator said, was to ensure that a barrister's social background, including any protected characteristics, did not affect the way a complaint was handled.

In recent years the BSB has removed the barrister's name from assessment reports to minimise the risks of potential unconscious bias arising from assumptions made about their ethnicity.

Past research had shown that BME barristers were more likely to be subject to a complaint, less likely to have a complaint closed without investigation, and more likely to have a complaint referred to disciplinary action.

The BSB said the latest report showed that when the source, type of complaint, or practising status is considered, the ethnicity of the barrister does not have a significant effect on the outcome of its grievance process.

Independent findings also concluded that the BSB's complaints-handling process itself was not discriminatory.

The regulator has announced that future assessment reports will be further anonymised to avoid identifying the barristers' gender unless it is directly relevant to the issues of complaint.

Commenting on the report, Sara Jagger, the BSB's director of professional conduct, said: 'It is pleasing that the report indicates there is no significant difference in complaints-handling between BME and white barristers, however it is an area we will continue to monitor.

'We do, however, need to look more carefully at the new findings in relation to the potential issue of gender bias and ensure that we take action to address this.

'Nevertheless, the report shows the public and the profession that they can have confidence in the fairness of our complaints-handling process.'

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