Bar Council under fire over ageism proposals

Proposals by two Bar Council committees to ban discrimination against pupil and tenant applicants on grounds of age have been slammed as “unworkable” by the Commercial Bar Association (Combar).

The proposal, included in a report by the bar’s professional standards and equal opportunities committees, says that anecdotal evidence shows that a substantial number of chambers simplify the task of shortlisting potential tenants and pupils by excluding applicants who are aged over 35.

The report was conducted in response to complaints from pupils who allege they were denied a pupillage because of ageism at the bar. A statistician’s interpretation of Pupillage Application Clearing House (Pach) statistics shows a man in his early 20s is five times more likely to get a pupillage than a man in his early 40s.

The Combar response paper says that the bar’s groundbreaking proposal fails to allow discrimination on the grounds of age when such a move is “objectively and reasonably justified by a legitimate aim”.

It adds there is little evidence to support the claim that many chambers exclude applicants aged over 35, and claims that the equal opportunities report fails to address the position of candidates in their 40s to 60s.

In addition, Combar claims that the bar’s existing guidelines for age diversity state that pupils under 30 are more likely to produce greater financial return.

The bar claims that it will be the first profession to ban age discrimination, and is spurred on by a European Union directive of December 2000, which aims to outlaw discrimination in the workplace by 2006.

Robin Purchas QC, chairman of the bar’s education and training committee, is also against aspects of the bar’s report on ageism, despite being a member of the equal opportunities committee which introduced the plan.

He says: “I’m not aware of any evidence reflecting any material problem of ageism from my experience of pupillage monitoring through the education and training committee. I don’t accept that chambers should take on pupils because they’re over 40 without accounting for the structure of chambers and the implications of intake.”

Purchas nevertheless feels that the issues of ageism, as well as sexism and racism, should be included in the bar’s code of conduct.