According to the Papworth Trust’s 2018 report on disability[1], there are 13.3 million disabled people living in the UK. Whilst people with a disability make up 18% of the working age population, they are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without a disability. They will have higher costs (on average spending £550 per month extra attributable to their disability) and higher debt (disabled people are twice as likely to have unsecured debt totalling more than half of their income). Yet those with disabilities still face significant impediments in obtaining employment, with 1 in 5 employers indicating that they are less likely to employ a disabled person.

The BSB’s most recent report on diversity[2] (“Diversity at the Bar 2018”) indicated that of those members of the practising Bar that responded, 2.8% of the total self-identified as having a disability for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Soberingly, the figures showed that the proportion of barristers with a disability fell with seniority (3.1% of pupils identifying as having a disability as against 1.1% of silks).

For the last decade, the Bar Council, the Bar Standards Board, and the Inns of Court have collectively sought to improve the diversity of the practising Bar. This is viewed both as an end in itself (it being accepted that the Bar ought to reflect the community from which we are drawn and that we seek to serve) as well it being understood that as the senior judiciary are still predominantly drawn from the Bar, increased diversity at the bar will have an impact on the make up of the judiciary too.

Access to the Bar for the disabled continues to be affected by a number of factors that include:

  • Cost;
  • Discrimination;
  • Physical access to Chambers; and
  • Access to the Courts.

Cost remains a significant problem. As a profession that is to a great degree self-employed, the burden of paying for special equipment or the extra costs of travel will still predominantly fall on the individual practitioner. Whilst such costs can usually be treated as business expenses for tax purposes, they still impose a heightened burden on the individual practitioner. That said, there is support out there to help Barristers in their early years. For example, the Inner Temple makes available Disability Awards for their students and pupils. These awards are directed towards helping those of its students and pupils that have disabilities with any increased costs attributable to their disabilities during their studies and pupillage. Students on the BPTC are often entitled to Disabled Students Allowance to pay for equipment and support during their studies and may also be eligible for scholarships from their Inn or course providers. Chambers too are increasingly aware of their obligation to make and pay for reasonable adjustments for pupils and tenants.

Problems of stereotyping of and discrimination against people with disabilities remains an issue at the Bar, but one that the profession is taking seriously. The BSB’s Handbook emphasises that one of a Barrister’s core duties is the obligation to not discriminate against anyone (Core Duty 8). The BSB Handbook places duties on barristers to ensure fair recruitment (e.g. every member of a recruitment panel should have undergone training on fair recruitment), monitor allocation of work and produce diversity statistics that are to be published on their Chambers’ website. All of these steps are ensuring that Chambers are increasingly aware of the need to take steps to be more inclusive and take steps to ensure equal opportunities for those with disabilities. The Bar Council’s Wellbeing at the Bar initiative[3] and the Bar Council and specialist bar association’s increasing emphasis on mental health awareness is helping to highlight the fact that not all disability is visible; that mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of and that those who need it can and should be supported.

Physical access to Chambers remains a significant problem. Although an increasing number of Chambers operate outside the Inns of Court (where old and often listed buildings present unique problems in terms of making necessary adaptations for access) even newer built premises can be problematic; from a lack of lifts between floors, to narrow doorways and corridors that make access for those in wheelchairs very difficult to poor lighting. Real thought needs to be given by all Chambers as to what can be done to make their premises more accessible. To this end, the Bar Council’s Disability Panel is shortly to unveil a Disability Audit Tool that will help Chambers identify the sorts of issues they need to address to make Chambers more accessible.

Access to the Courts remains a problem for the profession. Too often members of the Bar Council’s Disability Panel hear about old and poorly resourced courts that will not accommodate wheelchairs, are poorly lit, littered with obstacles or have poor acoustics. The Bar Council’s Disability Panel will continue to liaise with HMCTS to highlight these problems and suggest solutions.

Access to the Bar remains a problem for those with disabilities - as is shown by the disparity between the proportion of the profession with disabilities and the population at large – but the profession continues to work to improve the situation. Further advice and assistance on disability issues can be obtained from the Bar Council’s Disability Panel - which can be contacted via Sam Mercer, Head of Policy, Equality & Diversity and CSR at the Bar Council, at smercer@barcouncil.org.uk.

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