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The Impact of Covid-19 on Female Practitioners

Currently eleven weeks into a nationwide lockdown, many of us have been getting used to new ways of working. The swift move to remote hearings and Zoom socials (we have hosted some great Wellness Wednesday sessions if we do say ourselves) has minimised the disruption to our lives to some extent. However, whereas many women were able to leave their work life outside of the home, the new circumstances have forced the two to combine and, often, collide.

With schools across the country closing for non-critical workers, many women with caring responsibilities found themselves juggling working and schooling from home. The Next 100 Years project recently surveyed women in the legal profession. Nearly 40% of respondents had school age children at home. Of these, 91% report taking on extra childcare and homeschooling responsibilities with almost half of these indicating that they took on more responsibilities than their partner. 73% report that they are finding it hard to juggle and 32% have been forced to reduce working hours in direct response to this.

Figures such as these support the claim that the pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on women in the legal profession. Indeed, 65% of those surveyed indicated a concern that lockdown was exaggerating existing inequalities between men and women.

In an update to their 2019 ‘Back to the Bar’ report, the Western Circuit Women’s Forum (WCWF) has specifically considered how retaining women at the Bar will be impacted by Covid-19. With the ongoing global health pandemic further exacerbating issues such as the difficulty in balancing work and family commitments, their message to the Judiciary, HMCTS and Chambers is clear. Consider the Carers.

In all policy recommendations and procedural guidance issued, the potential effect on carers must be considered to ensure women in the legal profession are supported and accounted for. Already, we see women leaving the Bar at rates not mirrored by our male counterparts. Indeed, their 2019 survey noted that almost all of the men who left did so to retire or become judges, as opposed to the vast majority of women leaving mid-career. As it stands, the coronavirus pandemic looks set to amplify this trend, unless concrete action is taken.

WCWF recommends the Judiciary and HMCTS “take into account the practical difficulties faced by primary carers and people shielding the vulnerable”. This includes inviting advocates and other parties to indicate whether caring responsibilities might impact a hearing or future timetabling of a case. At this point, this information must be used to decide whether any “reasonable adjustments” are required to ensure a fair hearing. The implementation of reasonable adjustments is to be welcomed to ensure women with caring responsibilities are not forced into choosing between work and caring responsibilities during a period when they are considerable pressures on both.

To Chambers, ‘Support, Plan and Retain’ is the recommendation. It is advised that they take into account the practical difficulties faced by primary carers and people shielding the vulnerable during the pandemic. Suggestions on how to achieve this include maintaining active communication between clerks and barristers, echoing their voices to court staff and the judiciary about the need for greater notice and flexibility alongside ensuring all barristers have access to up to date guidance. WCWF particularly urges chambers to actively review the distribution of work to ensure those with caring responsibilities are not excluded. Acknowledging that those without caring responsibilities will be more available to take on last minute work, it should not be the case that those with are not considered at all, potentially leading to an unequal distribution subsequently affecting earnings and future briefs. We at WICL will be looking more into how this is monitored in criminal chambers, watch this space.

We welcome these recommendations by the WCWF and thank both them and the Next 100 years for shining a light on these issues. Our work at WICL Policy aims to continue monitoring the gendered effects of new guidance issued.

With thanks to Kitan Ososami.

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