Diversity within law has been a growing focus of the legal profession, working to remove the traditional stereotype of lawyers – white, privately educated, able-bodied men. In law, the Equality Act has governed the necessary shift, outlining the equality protections and enforcement practices of employment and initiating the pro-active mentality often found in firms and guidance boards in promoting diversity policies.
For disabled persons however, this shift has had a slower impact, with a consistent 3% of lawyers saying they consider themselves to be disabled from 2014-2019. This steady metric comes in stark contrast to the 19% of the working population who said they were disabled and produces an unnerving diversity visual where the 2003 Institute for Public Policy Research findings estimated that 1 in 3 people will experience disability during their working life.
The statistics clearly reflect a profession whose cohort doesn’t fully reflect the general population from which it is drawn, and serves, highlighting the shortfalls and improvements needed within the legal sector.
While the shift towards promoting and enforcing diversity has been legal sector-wide, the different diversity challenges facing solicitors and barristers separately means that the diversity policies have been developed independently with distinct governing bodies, while both focusing on removing obstacles and promoting inclusion to enable a more diverse workforce.
The barrister profession is notoriously traditional, which has often been criticised as a barrier to the production and implementation of effective inclusion strategies. Disability at the Bar also encounters additional accessibility challenges as a result of the independent and mobile framework that the Bar operates within. The impact of these characteristics may be able to account for the overly disproportionate disability statistics of the Bar, with only 7% of barristers having a disability, compared to the wider employment population where 19% identify as disabled.
The first significant challenge facing disabled barristers is access to chambers – chambers are often in old and/or listed buildings and as a result are not constructed to comply with current building regulations that afford access to those with disabilities. Even chambers that have undergone refurbishment do not offer a fully accessible solution, with narrow corridors, high-level intercoms and low stairway lighting continuing to restrict the access of disabled individuals.
Disabled students, pupils and barristers have the additional challenge of costs – special equipment, software or additional travel expenditure incurred as a result of their disability. There is also the additional factor that some disabilities may limit the range of cases a practitioner can undertake in comparison with their peers, therefore reducing their income.
For students, there are some funding options available from university’s and through Inn of court awards aimed at supporting disabled persons afford equipment, travel or support. Some chambers also have awards dedicated to supporting disabled pupils and funds such as special travel allowances to cover relevant costs.
While financial support is available in some circumstances, the reluctance to raise the issue of money under the concern that raising it may effect getting the pupillage, getting the tenancy or be looked upon badly by colleagues in chambers, often acts as a barrier to the effective use of the support.
Lastly, in addition to workplace accessibility, the Bar faces the additional task of evaluating and improving accessibility of courthouses. In 2019 it was reported that 31 out of 56 court and tribunal buildings in Greater London were not accessible to court users with disabilities. A year on in 2020, law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp investigated the accessibility of the courts and found only 8 courts fulfilled the full accessibility criteria.
On account of the historic nature of many of the court buildings the disability panel agrees that the solution lies in large investment by HM Treasury to properly fund capital projects to improve the court estate. However, there are disability organisations who are advocating for more immediate changes to the accessibility such as an introduction of designated accessibility officers to support disabled members of the public and legal professionals and require equality, diversity, and inclusivity training for the judiciary.
The professional conduct of barristers is governed by the Bar Standards Board, while the Bar Council acts as an independent body to determine and promote the progress of the Bar. Both bodies have shifted focus onto inclusivity within recent years – reporting on the current make-up of the profession, providing guidance for improving access of marginalised groups and setting up independent panels to support the journey forward.
The Bar profession is governed by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) which provides guidance and instruction to the profession on workplace conduct.
The BSB engages with disability most significantly through their annual diversity report which subsequently informs their guidance to improve diversity at the Bar. The latest BSB report on disability (2020) reflected the discrepancy between the percentage of barristers with disability and the percentage of the wider employment pool who self-recognised as disabled, but it also spoke into a larger issue – only 59% of people provided information on their disability status.
The resistance to providing information regarding disability comes as little surprise, disability within law – especially the Bar where the traditions of the profession have clouded the recruitment pool – has been met with bias and stigma.
In response to the report BSB Head of Equality and Access to Justice, Amit Popat said: “While we are pleased to see that the Bar is increasingly diverse, there is still more work to be done to make the profession truly representative of society.”
The Bar Council’s Equality, Diversity and Social Mobility Committee has a disability panel made up of barristers with a range of disabilities alongside other barristers with expertise in disability issues. This panel is tasked with advising the Council on relevant activities relating to disability, provide support for barristers and students with disability and produce guidance for both barristers and chambers on topics relating to reasonable adjustments, access to work and improving communication.
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In addition to the work that both the Bar Standards Board and the Bar Council do to provide support for the disabled community in accessing the Bar profession, many volunteer organisations have formed to support aspiring barristers and challenge the current barriers that exist within the profession.
Leading organisations, Association of Disabled Lawyers and Bringing Dis(Ability) to the Bar, have formed to undertake research, provide career support, such as mentoring and networking opportunities, and promote the awareness and discussion of accessibility within the Bar through events and social media campaigns.
Although the solicitor profession has less entrenched mobility challenges on account of the fixed employment nature of solicitors, there are still barriers to the inclusion of disabled people. A recent solicitors Regulation Authority survey sent to over 400 law firms reported that although 96% had an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy, only 20% had an action plan to promote disability inclusion. The approached firms also responded regarding the disability staff support networks, with only 13% reporting they had networks in place, with 6% of these staff networks led by senior leaders.
This survey painted the picture as to why disability inclusivity and accessibility within the solicitor profession needs to be a focus – the policy exists but the actions are yet to fully catch up.
There are multiple scholarships and schemes to support the further education of disabled people in pursuit of the solicitor profession.
The Snowden Trust supports students with physical or sensory disabilities with various funding awards. Although this fund doesn’t cover the entirety of LPC or BPTC fees it supports its awardees in purchasing computer equipment, additional accommodation, travel costs and/or mobility equipment to help prevent disability acting as a barrier in accessing to higher education.
The Leonard Sainer Legal Education Foundation also provides funding support to those who have faced ‘hardship’. This award is open to all final year LLB or LLM students and covers the cost of a full-time LPC or BPTC at course at UCL for two students.
The Law Society has also introduced a Diversity Access Scheme which aims to support individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds access the solicitor profession by offering LPC and SQE scholarships, mentoring opportunities and work experience.
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