“…better representation and advancement of women barristers on the Western Circuit.”
The Western Circuit Women’s Forum was set up in 2015 with three simple aims:
Why were we set up? Because much like the rest of the country we have a stark imbalance of the sexes in the senior ranks and it is a serious problem. The Bar Council Momentum Measures Report of 2015 concluded that on current patterns equality could never be achieved “The attrition is such that it would require a very long period of substantial imbalance in favour of women at Call to achieve a balance of women in practice.”
The WCWF does not require membership, but welcomes participation and ideas from all Circuiteers and has a steering group of eleven: one Circuit Judge, one silk (who is also a Mental Health Judge), and nine juniors (one whom is a Deputy District Judge and Mental Health Judge) in different disciplines, different calls and from all corners of the Circuit.
The WCWF runs social, networking and training events, has commissioned research projects and coordinates lobbying on issues that affect women barristers.
We liaise with other organisations such as the Bar Council and CBA about policy and working practices, and with the KC Secretariat and Judicial Appointments Commission to ensure we can provide help with career progression.
Importantly we run the Circuit-based mentoring scheme for women barristers under 10 years’ call. The WCWF is funded by the Western Circuit and the Inns of Court.
When the WCWF started in 2015, the Statistics from the Bar Council showed that women had made up 50% of people called to the Bar since 2000. However, only 31% of barristers were over 15 years call and only 14.8% of all QC’s (now KC’s) were women.
Have those figures changed substantively since that time? Has the percentage of women called translated to women at the senior end of the Bar? The most recent figures from the Bar Council show that the figures are moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction. There is a higher proportion of women who start pupillage than men, in 2022, there were only 24 more men than women at under 5 years’ call (out of those who identified as male and female).
However, there is a noticable disparity between those over 15 years’ call with almost double the number of male in comparison to female practitioners. The numbers for men and women have barely changed at all since 2018, save that there has been a small increase in women practitioners over 15 years’ call but there has also been a small increase in male practitioners over 15 years’ call. To further compound matters, KC’s who are women stands at approximately 400 – which is shocking when compared to the approximately 1500 KC’s who are men.
But what of the judiciary? Back in 2016, only 21% of court judges on the Western Circuit were women which rose to 24% in 2019. The 2022 statistics showed that women now make-up 30% of judges in the South-West. However, this means that the Western Circuit remains behind the (albeit still woeful) national figure of 35% of court judges and 30% of senior court judges (High Court and above) being women. And yet, across all legal Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) exercises in 2021-22, women accounted for 49% of applications and 48% of recommendations. The 2023 statistics are due to be released in July 2023.
We have had our successes on Circuit and a small improvement in the figures is evident but whilst there can be no doubt that, in recent years, the importance of equality at the Bar has been recognised and real efforts have been made to improve the figures; the pace of change is snail-like. At this rate, it will be at least another 25-30 years before there is parity of women at the Bar over 15 years’ call; and closer to 50 years before women can boast of hard won equality of KC’s and judges.
There is no trickle up effect; women are still leaving more readily than their male colleagues. This cannot simply be attributed to women ‘choosing’ not to work: the employed Bar boasts far better representation of women: some 48% of employer barristers are women, compared to 36% at the self-employed Bar. There are clearly factors embedded in self employed practice which make it difficult for some women to remain.
The WCWF remains committed to the importance of women mentoring women and of encouraging women to stay with their career and progress as they should.
Women also appear to continue to be substantially underrepresented throughout the Criminal Justice System compared with males. You can read the latest MoJ statistics here.
The WCWF is proud to have set up the first Circuit-based mentoring scheme, which is run by Charlotte Davies and Berenice Mulvanny. Every female barrister on the Western Circuit under 10 years call has been allocated a female barrister over 10 years call as a mentor. That is about 70 pairs. We were very proud to have been nominated for the ‘Mentor Scheme of the Year’ award at the South West Mentoring Awards 2019.
Circuiteers over 10 years’ call were invited to volunteer to be mentors, and we had such an enthusiastic response that we had a surplus of mentors. Mentees were not asked to put themselves forward, but, rather, were allocated a mentor and invited to withdraw from the scheme if they did not welcome it. We matched younger women with a mentor in the same practice area, in different chambers but in the same town where possible.
Please do get in touch either direct with the WCWF if you haven’t been allocated a mentor, wish to be a mentor or have a problem with the scheme.
The rationale for the scheme is based on the Bar Council’s Snapshot Survey in 2015 which identified that many of the challenges facing women barristers were gender-specific. The Snapshot recommended both mentoring and providing highly-visible female role models. Mentoring in the workplace has a proven track record in various sectors and especially in industries where there is a gender imbalance, and recent research provides evidence of the link between lower levels of stress and mentoring among barristers (Wellbeing at the Bar).
We may appear to be awash with mentoring schemes, but only a small minority of barristers have a mentor, and it is particularly difficult on the far reaches of the Circuit to access support and events which are based in London. Apart from the Circuit-centric approach, two elements of the scheme set it apart from other mentoring programmes.
“Being a woman at the bar presents a unique set of challenges, and having access to a more experienced female member of the bar for advice, who has undoubtedly encountered the same challenges as you, is an invaluable resource. Seeking out this advice alone can be difficult without knowing where to look or having guidance as to how to go about it; there can still be a stigma attached to raising concerns about gender inequality and individuals are often, understandably, reluctant to do so. That’s why the WCWF is such an important scheme – it provides women with an easily accessible resource for guidance and advice, but also promotes a new way of thinking about women’s roles at the bar. I have been lucky enough to be able to seek guidance from a more senior female member of the bar, and received not only sound, practical advice; but also the incentive to create a working environment that promotes gender equality and to motivate others to take a zero-tolerance approach to gender bias at work. Dialogue is the most important way of creating and sustaining change, and the WCWF mentoring scheme provides a forum for this to happen.”
Firstly: after much debate we decided to involve only women mentors. WCWF recognises that many women have been superbly mentored by senior men and the scheme is not intended to be divisive or discourage such relationships. However, despite the surprising lack of data available to show why women leave, it is incontrovertible that one of the major causes is the difficulty of combining primary caring responsibilities with a career at the Bar which is known to affect women more than men.
Allocating women mentors makes it easier for young women barristers to access advice about issues relating to primary care-giving/ parental leave, as well as ensuring that each young woman has a senior female role model.
“I have already struck up a relationship I would not have had with a junior member of the Bar from another set. It is great to have the chance to hear how life is for the those in their first few years of practise. It is different to how it was when I started out but more than that I think I had just forgotten what it was like to start out at the Bar. I feel we have already exchanged some useful thoughts on how and when to go about applying to rise through the grades and I think she will be encouraged to have a go at filling out the forms and taking me up on my offer to read them through and trying to help her present herself as well as she can. Although there will no doubt be many months when no active mentoring occurs I hope that my Mentee will feel supported by knowing she can ring me up at any time.”
Secondly: we took the decision that automatic allocation was the best approach. We did this become some women in focus groups conducted for the Snapshot project reported that they felt that they would be stigmatised as ‘pushy’ if they volunteered for any mentoring or career-progression scheme. We felt that an opt-out mentoring scheme was likely to result in higher take-up, and, thus far, we are heartened to report that feedback has been very positive.
Mentors have spoken of a sense of camaraderie and pleasure at meeting junior members of the Bar outside of their chambers. Mentees have expressed how important it is just to know that a Senior member of the Bar is willing to act as a mentor, how it will help with motivation in returning from maternity leave and a sense of being able to talk about issues without feeling like a burden.
Only one person under 10 years’ call withdrew from the scheme, but only because she had significant experience as a solicitor: she became a mentor.
“One of the greatest benefits about being at the self-employed Bar is the fact that one can enjoy the flexibility that comes with being self-employed. However, that very benefit can, at times, be incredibly isolating. No matter how supportive your Chambers, with everyone enjoying a busy practice, which on Circuit, particularly in the civil arena, incorporates a fair amount of travel, weeks can go by without a proper conversation with another member of the Bar. We have no line managers looking after our progress and looking out for our welfare and, when one experiences the professional upheaval associated with a career break such as maternity leave, it is easy to return to the profession and simply feel adrift. The mentoring scheme is incredibly important because, since another member of the Bar has indicated a willingness to act as a mentor and is assigned to you, one instantly feels less guilty (for want of a better word) about bothering that person and taking time away from their working day. Coupled with that is the benefit of enjoying a relationship with a barrister outside your own chambers, thereby avoiding the need to ‘sugar coat’ the situation and save face in front of colleagues. “
We are running a longitudinal survey with Portsmouth University to research the benefits of this mentoring scheme. Please do respond to the survey so that we can develop and improve the scheme.
Please get in touch if you haven’t been allocated a mentor, would like to be a mentor or have any difficulties with the scheme.
Thinking about applying to be a KC?
Is your judicial application driving you round the twist?
Need some inspiration for your CPS re-grading?
Then the WCWF is here for you! Career Progression Mentoring is for all women barristers on the Western Circuit regardless of call or practice area.
The WCWF will match you with a local barrister or judge best placed to provide some expert, friendly, confidential and FREE advice specifically aimed at assisting you with whatever the next stage is for you. Whether it’s questions about competency-based applications or assistance with forms and interviews, or more general advice about progressing your career, the WCWF has got it covered.
Sounds good? Then what are you waiting for? Email us today at email@example.com and we will be very happy to help you to take the next step on your career path.
WCWF Spring Socials 2023
We were delighted to be joined by Mrs Justice Cutts (Presiding Judge on the Western Circuit) and Mrs Justice Judd (Family Division Liaison Judge on the Western Circuit) for social events which took place in March in Truro and May in Exeter.
We are very grateful to Mrs Justice Cutts and Mrs Justice Judd for taking time out of their busy schedules to meet with local practitioners and to listen to our concerns in a relaxed setting.
We hope to hold more events like this in future. Keep an eye on our website, Twitter and LinkedIn for more updates. If you would like to be added to our mailing list then please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Ask a Judge Evening: Friday 20 May 5-7pm
Career Progression and Judicial Applications
We were delighted to hold our first post-lockdowns in person event at Exeter Combined Courts. Over 40 people attended including local practitioners and students.
A huge thank you to our incredible panel of speakers: The Rt Hon Dame Victoria Sharp DBE, The Hon Mrs Justice Johanna Cutts, HHJ Cronin, HHJ Richardson, Miss Recorder Martin KC, DDJ Mashembo and Kate Blackburn. Your words were an inspiration to us all.
Our thanks also go to HHJ Johnson for giving up his court room for the event, the court staff for their assistance and Lisa Lyons (Magdalen Chambers) for the excellent array of food and drinks. Stay tuned for our next event!
WCWF Social 20 January 2022
Thank you so much to everyone who attended our social on Thursday. It was wonderful to catch up with you all and to hear about your practice areas at the moment. Thank you also to our new acting Chairs Jo Martin QC and Carol Mashembo. Our former Chair, Rachael Goodall, has been appointed as a District Judge on the Western Circuit and we wish her the very best of luck in her new role.
The views of practitioners remain mixed about the advantages and disadvantages of working from home and returning to mainly in person hearings. There is also uncertainty regarding the variation in approach by local court centres to remote and in person hearings. We will be planning an update to our original 2018 ‘Back to the Bar’ research paper later this year. This will take into account the impact of Covid-19 and whether or not retention for women at the Bar has improved over the space of five years.
We continue to remain in support of all women practitioners on Circuit. If you would like to talk to us about anything affecting your practice at the moment then you can email email@example.com; DM us on Twitter @WCWF_, or message us on LinkedIn. We are here for you.
BACK TO BUSINESS: 99½ won’t do (or will it)? 29 September 2021
A big thank you to Tim Collins (https://asktim.org/; @wowthankyoutim) for his inspirational and motivational talk focused on the next steps to take in career progression, whether that be judicial, silk or moving into new areas of law, and the dreaded imposter syndrome. You can read/watch Tim’s materials here and a recording of his talk will be posted on our website soon. It was also great to catch up with everyone after Tim’s talk and hear about what is affecting women barristers at the moment.
Tim has his own consultancy and enjoys mentoring, coaching, training and consulting individuals and organisations to face challenges and move forward. He also has a niche expertise – working closely with lawyers to become judges, take silk and secure senior appointments. Tim is a P&G trained psychology graduate and has built his skills and knowledge from over 30 years of working with and leaning from a really diverse set of people, businesses, groups and situations. All of Tim’s proceeds from the WCWF for his talk will go to his chosen charity, Simon On The Streets https://www.simononthestreets.co.uk/.
Judicial and Silk Applications with Kate Brunner KC
On 13 May 2021, we were delighted to have Kate Brunner KC, Leader of the Western Circuit and former WCWF Chair host an informative and eminently helpful webinar focussing on the competencies which feature in judicial and silk applications. We also used break-out rooms to specifically focus on applications for judicial and tribunal posts; and applying for Silk. Kate held one-to-one sessions with several attendees.
‘Lockdown Challenges for the Bar’ 12 January 2021
Thank you to all judges and practitioners who attended our webinar in January. We heard first hand how things were on the ground in light of the then recent lockdown and came up with solutions. We are pleased to report that a strong message has come out from the Senior Judiciary on the Western Circuit reminding all judges of the difficulties for court users, including Counsel and advocates, to conduct their work alongside caring responsibilities during this pandemic.
If you have experienced any difficulties with listing arrangements, timings during cases or deadlines that you feel unable to comply with, please get in touch with the WCWF via a DM at @WCWF_ or email us at WCWF@westerncircuit.co.uk
Paperless Working: Tips, Tricks and Essential Hacks 12 November 2020
We had a fantastic turnout for this event, including local judges. A big thank you to our speakers, Elizabeth Bowden (College Chambers) and Kriti Upadhyay (Guildhall Chambers) who provided some much needed enlightenment to help us all through working remotely from home and beyond!
Work, Wellbeing and Wine
Thank you to everyone who joined us on 8 October 2020 for our Zoom event. We enjoyed catching up with everyone and hearing about how things are on the ground for you. We were inspired to set up an IT Masterclass (watch this space) and talked about how to juggle family life and work – top tip: do a fake commute – go for a power walk before court and after court (from home!)
Career Progression, Competencies and Catch-up
Thank you to everyone who attended our Zoom event on 5 June 2020. Thank you to our guest speaker, Kate Brunner KC, Leader of the Western Circuit and former Chair of the WCWF. We enjoyed chatting with everyone afterwards and hearing about the latest concerns of practitioners as we start a cautious return to court.
Poonam Bhari, a family barrister at 3PB, sent us some lovely feedback afterwards:
“I just wanted to email you to say how great I think the WCWF meetings are. In a way I am glad they are by zoom, which has enabled someone like me to be able to participate.
Today was the second time I have joined and I am really impressed by the camaraderie, goodwill, encouragement, leadership and support that you and others have shown.
You provide a safe space for women to talk about what we are experiencing and to share ideas and for that I thank you.
In my 20 years at the Bar as you can imagine I have attended a lot of meetings but I have found the WCWF meetings to be incredibly supportive and the open invitation by members to provide guidance and support to others is very welcome.”
Don’t forget that you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org at any time with your concerns, for careers related advice or just to let us know how you’re doing. We want to help if we can. Stay safe and stay tuned for our next event!
Becoming healthy, wealthy and wise? The role of mentoring in the legal profession
We we were delighted to have Dr Emma Jones join us for our WCWF Zoom Party on 24th April. We had a great turnout with many concerns being raised about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our practices. This prompted us to write our latest paper: ‘Back to the Bar: The Impact of Covid-19’.
Dr Emma Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sheffield. Before that she was Teaching Director at The Open University Law School and prior to entering academia she was a solicitor in private practice. Emma’s research focuses on the role of emotions and wellbeing in legal education and the legal profession, including aspects such as digital lawyering, legal culture and mentoring. She spoke to us about the role of mentoring in the legal profession and how it might help us to become healthy, wealthy and wise.
The Association of Women Barristers: Rachael Goodall attends roundtable discussions
On 30th November 2018, the AWB held roundtable discussions on harassment and bullying. Chaired by HHJ Kaly Kaul QC and Lynne Townley, the discussions resulted in an important report in late 2019: ‘In The Age of ‘Us Too?’: Moving Towards a Zero-Tolerance Attitude to Harassment and Bullying At the Bar‘. Rachael Goodall attended the original discussions on behalf of the WCWF and was impressed by the progressive talks leading to five key recommendations for change:
WCWF Wellbeing Events 20th November 2019
We had a fantastic turnout for our Wellbeing Events on 20th November 2019. The CEO of Law Care, Elizabeth Rimmer gave an insightful and well received talk in Winchester; those in Bristol enjoyed a talk from a Psychologist on Professional Wellbeing and those in Exeter were crying with laughter with the wonderful Sue Haswell guiding them through some laughter yoga. It was lovely to meet with everyone and enjoy a catch up over some drinks and nibbles. We are grateful to all our sponsors and supporters: 12 College Place; College Chambers; Guildhall Chambers and Magdalen Chambers. Stay tuned for our next event!
WCWF Social May 2019
We held three separate events across Circuit on 16th May 2019. Western Circuiteers relaxed at a garden party hosted by Her Honour Judge Miller KC in Winchester; caught up over drinks at The Severnshed, Bristol and enjoyed drinks and nibbles at The City Gate Hotel, Exeter. The events were well attended and we are extremely grateful to all Chambers who provided sponsorship including Colleton Chambers, Devon Chambers and Walnut House Chambers.
International Women’s Day Conference
We are extremely grateful to everyone who joined us for our conference to celebrate International Women’s Day: ‘Women in Law: Support, Retention and Progression’ on 8th March 2019. You can find a full write-up about the day here. We received some incredible feedback and look forward to organising similar future events:
“I really can’t thank WCWF enough for this conference. I have just come back from maternity leave after my second child, having had a gap off ill between my two children and moved from London to Bristol. So there are so many reasons not to carry on with trying to (re)build a practice at the Bar, but this conference made me feel that it would be worth it and that I must at least continue to try. It was just the right message at the right time for me, and I am really grateful.”
“The conference yesterday was fabulous, thanks so much for organising. What an impressive line up of speakers…I liked the fact that the focus was very much intersectional (or so it seemed to me), and that the themes spoke to women from all backgrounds. Looking forward to the next one!”
“It was a superb three hours packed with inspiring speakers. I though you got the time slots perfectly pitched. I was left wanting to hear even more from each and every one. So much thought had plainly gone into the range of topics you covered. In short, it was everything a successful conference should be. I listened to all the buzz around me in the audience and I know I was not alone in my huge enjoyment of the afternoon.”
In the lead-up to the conference, we launched an essay competition for undergraduate and postgraduate law students studying and training in Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth. The overall winner was Nicole Hilton, an LLB Law student at Bristol University. Congratulations Nicole! You can read her full essay here.
January Drinks 2019
We really enjoyed meeting Western Circuit women barristers at our January Drinks events in Bristol, Plymouth and Winchester. We look forward to hosting similar events in the future. Thank you in particular to Guildhall Chambers for sponsoring our Bristol event and Devon Chambers for hosting the Plymouth event.
Observations on the Extension of Court Sitting Hours 2020
The HMCTs Covid Operating Hours consultation i.e. Extended Operating Hours closes in late December following a short consultation period. You can read our response here.
We have serious concerns about the suggestion that practitioners could avoid listing difficulties by requesting that hearings take place during standard operating hours if they are unable to attend an extended sitting hours court.
Extended operating hours is discriminatory and will lead to a loss of income and the inevitable consequence of many barristers choosing to leave the profession. We fear that most of these barristers will be women.
Following on from our ‘Back to the Bar: The Impact of Covid-19’ paper we sent copies of our paper and personalised coasters to all Western Circuit Courts and Tribunals in September 2020 asking them to #ConsiderTheCarers. You can read our report and key recommendations here.
We sent coasters designed by Steering Group members Emma Cross and Grace Nicholls to judges and Tribunals across the Western Circuit. We also sold our spare coasters in order to raise funds for the WCF. A big thank you to 2 King’s Bench Walk, Devon Chambers, Guildhall Chambers, and KBG Chambers for supporting our campaign. The coasters were professionally printed by Merchandise Ltd.
Harassment Reporting Scheme
The WCWF, together with the Education Committee of the Western Circuit, successfully campaigned in 2018 to make amendments to the requirement for the automatic reporting requirement for any barrister who hears of harassment. As a result, the BSB has announced changes, adopting the prototype submitted by the Western Circuit. The Western Circuit set up the first harassment reporting scheme under the BSB waiver rules and produced a proforma to assist other groups who may wish to do the same.
The Bar Council’s secure reporting tool, Talk to Spot, has been revamped and can now be used to report coronavirus-specific concerns – for example around safety when attending court – as well as to report harassment and inappropriate behaviour, as before.
The WCWF has published many leading papers and guides as part of its role to strive for equality between men and women barristers on the Western Circuit:
Back to the Bar series
We are delighted to announce that we will be commissioning a new research project ‘Back to the Bar: Five Years On’ to be published in 2023. Stay tuned for further updates!
‘Back to the Bar: The Impact of Covid-19’ May 2020: We listened to the concerns raised directly with us about the impact of Covid-19 on working practices, especially for primary carers, who are disproportionately women. In this paper, we highlight the risks and recommend practical steps to minimise them. We implore the judiciary, HMCTs and Chambers’ to Consider The Carers.
‘Back to the Bar Retention and Progression After Parental Leave’ 2019: Short and useful guidance for Chambers, Clerks and barristers including a questionnaire checklist to make your return to work as successful as possible.
‘Back to the Bar: A Survey of Obstacles, Aids and Recommendations for Parents Returning to the Bar’ 2018: Recommendations on how to ensure those who wish to return to work, are able to return to work
‘Flexible Working Hours’ or ‘Extended Operating Hours’
Feature in the Financial Times ‘Why female barristers are leaving the profession’: https://www.ft.com/content/97358690-6a9e-11e9-80c7-60ee53e6681
Other useful resources
WCWF ‘in the news’
Back to the Bar series
Featured on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0002hxw
Featured by Exeter University: https://law.exeter.ac.uk/newsandevents/news/articles/thewesterncircuitwomensfor.php
Calling out harassment at the Bar
Article by WCWF co-Chair Selena Plowden KC and Kate Brunner KC (former WCWF Chair and Leader of the Western Circuit): https://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/timesup-calling-it-out-the-bar
Article for Counsel Magazine by Kate Brunner KC and others https://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/ending-harassment-men-welcome-to-the-conversation!
WCWF Career Progression and Mentoring:
‘Ask a Judge’ 20 May 2022 – write-up by Tribunal Judge Lynn Griffin: https://westerncircuit.co.uk/wcwf-ask-a-judge-panel-event-20-may-2022-write-up-by-tribunal-judge-lynn-griffin/
WCWF mentoring scheme: https://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/mentoring-the-western-circuit
The WCWF is committed to eradicating harassment at the Bar. Please contact us at email@example.com about any issue.
Please read the comprehensive guidance given by Bar Council here. You can also read the notes of Professor Jo Delahunty KC’s lecture on sexual harassment at the Bar here. More recently, the BSB has researched bullying and harassment at the Bar which it considers remains a significant issue.
Need to talk to someone? Call the Western Circuit Harassment Helpline approved by the BSB as a pilot harassment support scheme. The Helpline will provide confidential advice and support to all barristers (including pupils) on the Western Circuit who have experienced any harassment or unwanted behaviour by listening to their story and providing information about their options for further action.
You can also anonymously record any incidents of bullying, discrimination, harassment and Covid-19 related concerns with the ‘TalktoSpot‘ App. You can read more here. The App saw an increase in usage in January 2021, with all reports submitted via the app relating to Covid-19 issues. A total of 34 reports were made between September 2020 and the end of January 2021 on the App, with the highest number, 13, reported in January.