On the basis of sex?

- Perveen Hill

A few weeks ago, at a time when the global Covid-19 pandemic dominated every article, report and post, I noticed something that stood out; a junior barrister had tweeted about her dis-instruction based solely on her sex. Having been instructed by solicitors, she was dropped from five cases for a client, despite having never met him, as he did not want to be represented by a woman.

This prompted me to discuss the subject with my fellow Women in Criminal Law committee members and pose the question; is there any gender bias attributable to the instruction of barristers and other legal representatives? Furthermore, we asked why some in the profession followed these instructions to fuel such inequality and whether we were doing enough to stop it.

It is clear that no reputable firm or chambers should endorse or allow the allocation of cases based on sex. Aside from the obvious moral and ethical issues, it is unlawful for anyone (including solicitors, clerks or clients) to instruct legal representatives (or not) on the basis of any protected characteristic, including sex. It is of note that most corporate and commercial law firms, including mine, now provide regular training to staff and leaders on unconscious bias, recognising that it remains a big issue within the profession.

During my early career I was allocated, on merit, a complex, profitable case. I was thrilled to receive work of this nature and grateful for my firm’s faith in my ability. However, much like the tweeter’s experience, prior to meeting my client I was informed by the office manager that he did not want a woman to represent him. At this point, I was preparing to hand the case over to a male colleague. My supervisor took a different view.