It is an unhappy fact of modern life that the Bar Council had no choice but to recently publish guidance on how to deal with gender and ethnic discrimination.
The council sought the help of the Institute of Barristers' Clerks (IBC) to create its code. While we welcome the call for help, we approached the task with trepidation. The thought that sat uneasily in the back of our minds was that by assisting the development of the code we would be suggesting incidents of discrimination had reached worrying proportions.
But the importance of the work soon became clear. First, because it was obvious the Bar Council's concern was that discrimination could become a serious problem unless steps were taken to prevent it. And second, because of the clerk's role in the organisation of the Bar, we are necessarily going to be involved in dealing with a significant proportion of any complaints in some way.
Along with computerised fee systems supplier ACE, we helped devise a simple way of monitoring the route by which "unnamed work" reaches a particular barrister.
The procedure of entering instructions has been modified to include an additional layer of information over the allocation of this work. This will, if required, generate a report which can be used to deal with complaints that discrimination has caused a deterioration in the quality and/or volume of work. Data of this kind is more valuable than anecdotal evidence. As a by-product, information of this sort can be a useful and sophisticated marketing tool.
We were concerned about the practical effect of the code on chambers administration. As with many Bar Council initiatives, after the committee has met and the report written it is left to the clerks to put theory into practice. While the theory in this case is simply that a few extra buttons have to be pressed, life is never so simple.
The additional information which needs to be entered and stored concerns the distribution of work. Whether a barrister is instructed at the request of the solicitor or at the clerk's recommendation, it is quite likely that the clerk entering the papers will not know which route the instructions took. The recommendation, if there was one, could have taken place days or weeks before the papers arrived. Questions will have to be asked around the clerk's room if the information is to be accurately recorded.
The information is only required for juniors and pupils but this is the sector of the Bar with the largest volume of work. The fact that this material can be used to monitor the performance of chambers generally is useful but only a slight "sweetener".
The real importance of the data is that it will hopefully enable clerks to respond to suggestions of discrimination quickly and accurately. I have no doubt the procedures will increase the workload in the clerk's room. Equally I have no doubt that the burden will be coped with.
As competition at the Bar increases some barristers are bound to see a change in the pattern, if not the amount, of work they do.This will create an atmosphere of concern and fear in which suggestions of discrimination are likely to thrive. To prevent the problem becoming serious – at present I am convinced it is not- a mechanism is required to face up to and deal conclusively with each incident. This is why the equality code is a necessary addition to the guidance published by the Bar Council and why the IBC has been happy to assist in its formulation.