Cos we’re special, like

I have been VERY disgruntled at an edict from the diocese telling me that I have to complete an online safeguarding course in order to continue bellringing at my local church. This was objectionable for a number of reasons, not least that I am giving up my time for free and have been doing so on and off for almost 35 years without anyone to date seeing the need for me to do this, and in no small part because there are almost never fewer than six people in a 20ft square bell chamber, so the opportunity for abuse is (one might think) quite limited. Having been talked down from staging an indignant one woman protest at this outrage and from my early suggestion that I would invoice the C of E at my hourly rate, I was even more disgruntled when I had to click through page upon page of spiritual / religious bumpf to get to the somewhat basic safeguarding training (not all bellringers DO religion, a fact that the church sometimes forgets), which was complete with pop up graphic photos of people with facial injuries (I’m pretty sure I could have identified them as vulnerable without the learning in this course), and other potentially triggering imagery. Also, I got most of the answers wrong (Because the questions were stupid, natch).

Anyway, I’m over that. I’ve done it. I am now A Safe and Aware Person and my vulnerability antenna are primed. I’ve said “elf n safety gone maaad” three times, clicked my heels and am back to normality, and a real world where the greatest risk in a bell tower is the risk of catching an arm or foot in a rope and finding yourself hurtling towards the ceiling with all the force a 2 ton bell can muster.

Anyway…The reason it all seemed faintly ridiculous and produced what I can now see as a good impression of an outraged pompous barrister, was that I work day in day out with and for vulnerable children and adults and I’ve NEVER had to undergo safeguarding training or any CRB/DBS checks. Wait, what?

Yes. Odd isn’t it? Barristers do not have to undergo a DBS check in order to become a barrister, let alone refresh those checks from time to time in order to continue. On reflection, this is a whole lot more worthy of concern than my having to undergo the grave indignity of doing an online course.

When I was called to the bar 15 years ago you had to declare you hadn’t been in clink, get someone to certify you were a fit and proper person (usually a university lecturer – what the hey would THEY know?!), and bingo you could join an Inn of Court (the gateway to the bar). Back then it was CRB checks as DBS hadn’t been invented, but it doesn’t matter what they were called because you didn’t need one. No doubt this will at one time have been the way of most professions, glued together with trust and integrity. But that certainly isn’t the case now. According to Mind vets, medics, accountants all require them (although then I’m not sure how much we can rely on that, because they also say that barristers require DBS checks, and whilst I’ve not checked every profession I have double checked the current entry rules for my own).

I thought when this particular bee first entered my bonnet that things MUST have changed since I was called, but it turns out that the rules for becoming a barrister haven’t really changed significantly since I slipped in under the wire all those years ago. There is still a fit and proper person test, it is still certified by a declaration from the student and from some person of your choosing rather than by independent agency check. There are certain matters which mean the applicant has to be referred to a tribunal. Those are :

the applicant has been convicted of a Criminal offence (or is the subject of pending Criminal Proceedings; or

the applicant has been convicted of a disciplinary offence by a professional or regulatory body (or is the subject of pending proceedings for such an offence); or

the applicant has been found guilty of an academic offence by a higher education institution (and has not successfully appealed against that finding); or

the applicant has been the subject of a Bankruptcy Order director’s disqualification order or has entered into an individual voluntary arrangement with creditors; or

the applicant has previously been refused admission to or expelled from an Inn; or

there is any other circumstance which in the opinion of the Inn calls into question the applicant’s fitness to become a practising barrister

(see the BSB Handbook Part 4). But of course DBS checks show up a whole lot more than just convictions or matters charged. They would go far wider.

The more I think about it the more I think it really is quite odd that I have could have all sorts of skeletons in my DBS closet but nobody is bothered to check (I don’t, but you know…). And just as odd that those who are entering the profession now still aren’t being checked.

Solicitors do have to provide a DBS check before entering the profession. They of course handle client funds and work more directly with the public, but it’s hardly as if we barristers never come into contact with the great unwashed, and of course public access work means we are having much more unstructured contact with the public outside of the context of a hearing in a public building.

Annoyingly, a self employed person can’t get their own DBS check, so we’re sort of stuck with this situation unless our regulators change the rules.

So, whilst I still think a mandatory safeguarding course in order to permit me to stand in a small room with 7 other people and pull ropes for half an hour twice a week is a bit of tick box nonsense that won’t enhance anybody’s safety one iota, I DO think that it would be right and proper for people like me to be checked out just to make sure we aren’t secret axe murderers in between our odd and seemingly innocuous hobbies (I mean, have you read The Nine Tailors?). That to me would be a bit of safeguarding that even I couldn’t quibble with.

I’ve said before that the bar do need to stop thinking about themselves as somehow special – the trust of the public no longer derives from the fact that we are a “profession”. It must be demonstrated.

When accountability and privacy collide…

The Transparency Project (which I chair) are facilitating a debate on 5 December in Bristol looking at the question of whether privacy should trump accountability. It’s taken quite a lot of effort to pull together, but I think you’ll agree the line up is pretty sooper, and I hope that this – together with some enthusiastic audience participation – will make for a rounded and useful discussion of what is quite a chunky topic.

We have HHJ Wildblood QC in the chair, with a panel of :

  • The Honourable Mr Justice Baker,
  • Louise Tickle (freelance journalist),
  • Gretchen Precey (NAGALRO Chair),
  • Andrew Pack (Suesspicious Minds blog, local authority lawyer),
  • Sophie Ayers (Independent Social Worker (formerly in statutory services))
  • Callum May (BBC News Producer)
  • Hannah Markham QC (barrister)

Since I hit publish on the Eventbrite booking page we’ve had 60 odd bookings, so it looks like it has generated some real interest. Everyone with an interest in the topic (even if you have no particular expertise or experience) is welcome.

Book tickets here. And if you can – please donate a little.



Feature picture : Bart Maguire on Flickr (Creative Commons – thanks!)

Me too – judicial bullying

I’m conflicted about #Metoo. I did post “me too” on Facebook (friends only). I didn’t post it on twitter. But I paused and thought before saying so. I felt that, since I know sexual harassment of women is real, pernicious and normalised this was an important moment to support. BUT…

I don’t feel like a victim, and I want no part of the victim culture which other hashtag campaigns like #webelieve have signified.

I have felt a little as if the campaign has inadvertently taken on some of the characteristics of the thing it opposes. The fact that I felt I ought to type those words, is down to pressure – the same peer pressure that ruled our lives at school. I wondered to myself yesterday, only half joking, how long it would take for someone to hashtag women who refused to join in as #frigid, in exactly the way it happened when we were at school (before hashtags, the internet and handheld devices). Mostly you were called frigid by boys. Sometimes by other girls.

But anyway, I said #metoo. Not because of the pressure, but in spite of it. I didn’t say it on twitter because it all felt as if it was jumping the shark.

I’ve thought a lot these past weeks (and argued with others) about what we should be telling our children (boys and girls) about these things. At my school sexual touching by boys was normalised, unremarked upon by teachers. Bra straps undone, skirts pulled up, bums pinched. We girls said stop it – and giggled. Looking back I want to kick myself, but in our behaviour we encouraged it. Looking back I think our parents and our teachers failed the girls and they failed the boys. We did what was normal, we did what our peers did. Having your bra strap pinged (even if you didn’t want it) meant being accepted, it meant not being called frigid. That is where it begins isn’t it? Compliance. Learnt passivity. Everyone else is doing it, so…

So I understand that the “trivial” stuff matters, that it isn’t just “serious” stuff like rape that “counts” here (and I note that some male politicians who should know better treat the serious stuff as if it is trivial. Shame on Michael Gove this morning). But nonetheless I found myself searching my memories for my “best” #metoo. “I must have one”, was the half formed thought in my mind. Actually, I do have one. More than one. But these are not experiences I think and worry about every day. I am lucky not to have experienced an assault or harassment event I consider traumatic or damaging to me. And so I was reluctant to be seen to claim some equivalent status with a woman (or man) who has experienced sexual harassment or assault far more serious than I. In truth, my relatively minor brushes with sexual danger or unwanted attention have been just that – trivial and not particularly traumatic (although they do extend beyond the bra strap).

But still, had it not been for a very recent experience of unwanted sexual touching on a train I would not have felt it appropriate to say it. Here again, this was assault which I reported to the police to protect other women, not because I was particularly upset or hurt (I was mostly cross that I had felt paralysed and unable to act – my husband said “Why didn’t you say loudly “please stop pressing your penis against my body”?”, as if it was that easy. The truth is I was worried at what his and other people’s reactions might be if I did and I froze). So I don’t feel particularly entitled to the #metoo hashtag. And I don’t want people’s praise for “bravely” telling my story about a sad little man who isn’t going to affect my life. And I worry a little that hashtags can become a desired status to claim, that devalues the original purpose.

So yeah, I’m conflicted about #metoo.

So why am I posting this?

Because #metoo has a different resonance for me right now that isn’t to do with sexual harassment or assault.

It’s always been something of a surprise to me that I haven’t really experience sexual harassment at the bar. Sexism, yes. Harassment, no. My sense when I was a young(ish) pupil and baby tenant was that my (relatively unusual) married status offered some protection, like an invisible forcefield. I was very aware that the behaviour of certain men changed when they found out I was married. I didn’t wear my wedding ring at work for some years – at the time I articulated the rationale as being that it was nobody’s bloody business, but in truth I had a sense that female pupils weren’t meant to be married. And although I was ready for the inappropriate behaviour, it never came.

But the emergence of the #metoo campaign has coincided with something else : a spirited discussion on social media and now the legal press about judicial bullying, prompted by the tweets of Mary Aspinall Miles, and subsequently Jo Delahunty QC. And for me both these issues have become intertwined. I want to explain why – because although sexual assault is of course not equivalent with judicial bullying, there are some striking parallels which have made me rethink my response to the #metoo campaign. Most obviously, sexual assault is about power as much as it is about sex. And film producers are to aspiring actors what judges are to lawyers. What they say goes. My experience of judicial bullying has helped appreciate why it is that women don’t often call it out. Because they are powerless, paralysed, silenced.


What’s been emerging in this discussion about judicial behaviour is a consensus that it is not okay for a judge to be a bully. And that something needs to change. Unlike the very public humiliation and downfall of Harvey Weinstein, these refrains about judicial bullying are not centred around an identifiable scapegoat or totemic bad guy. They can’t be. Confidentiality, ethics and brute reality prevent their identification. It’s important also to recognise that this is not all judges. Most judges are courteous and tolerant and appreciative of the work of lawyers. A very few judges are bullies all of the time, some occasionally slip through pressure or personal circumstance. Both lawyers and judges are under increasing pressure, and just as we tell our children that bullying at school is often borne of the insecurities of the bully, I suspect that this issue is at least in part exacerbated by the immense pressure on our judges. It is a tough job, and judges are only human. That doesn’t make bullying excusable but it’s important to say nonetheless. But here I’m more interested in the impact than the cause. Because I also suspect that some judges do not realise that what they say and how they behave affects those who appear before them long after they leave the courtroom.

Prompted by the recent online discussion of this issue, I found myself (privately) telling my own horror story of serious and sustained judicial bullying to a colleague this week. I’ve experienced shouting judges, rude judges, very demanding judges (haven’t we all). All of that I can withstand, it comes with the job and is water off the proverbial. But only once have I had an experience that I would call bullying (though I have seen the impact of chronic bullying on others). It was a while ago now, though recent enough for me to have been surprised and ashamed that as a lawyer with more than a decade’s war stories I still found it so debilitating and so undermining of my confidence as a lawyer.

I’m not going to tell that story here, because it is intimately bound up with the private details of my client’s case, and because in my heart I hope the judge in question was acting out of character and regrets their behaviour and would be mortified to read of it. But also because it is actually too hard a story to relive. Having done so earlier this week I was unexpectedly right back there, a gibbering wreck, wracked with guilt for breaking down at court, for failing a client (I didn’t but at the time I felt that I had), humiliated at my inability to cope and the treatment of me in front of peers and clients, powerless to make it stop because the judge had complete control. What I have realised is that I felt all those things that survivors of abuse describe feeling, all those things that the victims of sexual predators feel : shame, guilt, powerlessness, a crisis of confidence. I thought I was over it, but talking about it I was right back there. Paralysed again. And so it seems these things have a lasting effect. None of my experiences of sexual harassment had that impact on me. But I can see how a more serious assault might.

So I do sort of understand #metoo, although it is undeniably vulnerable to distortion and a sort of collective hysteria. I don’t quite know how it will help to put this out there, just as I can’t yet quite work out how naming judicial bullying as a problem will help if we can’t make it stop – but instinctively I know that saying #metoo to judicial bullying is the right thing to do. There are I suspect many others with less of a voice than me, who are less senior than me, who are not just paralysed when they voluntarily relive these experiences, but who live them every day in their minds eye and who might not yet be brave enough to say #metoo. But I am big enough and ugly enough to say it on their behalves so that they know it is not just them. And so we can all try a little harder to be kind whilst we are being firm.

And for anyone experiencing this – do please talk to colleagues at the bar for support. I have found a trusted few have been invaluable. You know who you are. x