Widening the pool

By Martin Forde QC

In July 2009, I was approached by Stephen Leslie QC, Leader of the SEC, to consider jointly chairing with Frances Oldham QC the Circuit’s Minority Committee. Having understood it would involve building upon the work of David Spens QC and Mohammed Khamisa QC, I accepted with alacrity. I am delighted that The Circuiteer has given me an early opportunity to publicise the work of the Committee and the very real desire of the legal establishment to ensure that the Bar is representative of our vibrant, diverse and pluralist society.

The SEC has embarked upon a Circuit Diversity Mentor (“CDM”) initiative designed to provide a network for identifying, encouraging and supporting those members of the Circuit, from diverse backgrounds, with sufficient talent to apply for judicial posts, Silk and government panels. Equally, those of such talent who maybe professionally isolated should be able to consult with such mentors. The aim is for each of the 11 Circuit Messes to appoint a mentor or mentors to fulfil this challenging role. It will be expected that each Mess will report to full Circuit meetings of progress made in this important area and any proposed initiatives, which could involve anything from organising events to school visits.

The aim is to make access to the profession and progress within the profession fairly based upon ability and nothing else. The independent Bar must be a meritocracy and so far as possible reflect the demography of the population as a whole. In fact the Bar has a very good record in terms of recruitment. Our aim is to help facilitate progression. Much can be done to encourage junior practitioners of ability to develop their career and appreciate the necessary experience and relevant stepping stones.

I am also keen that CDMs should be able to demystify application processes, help prepare candidates for appointment, where appropriate and be able to acquire, over time, the knowledge of and insight into the factors that affect decisions to apply for appointment. Mentoring has been recognised as the single most important tool in professional development and part of my role will be to encourage appropriate persons to apply to be mentors – it is a mutually rewarding role for mentor and mentee.

I will always endeavour to be available to any member of the Circuit, having found my informal mentoring over the years very rewarding. I was extremely fortunate that from the beginning of my time in Chambers I was encouraged by every senior member of Chambers, pupil supervisor and Head of Chambers to make the most of my abilities. I am personally indebted to all those who, even if they became members of the judiciary, kept a close personal interest in my career.

Not all of us at the Bar have that support network and that may be particularly the case for those of us who come from less conventional backgrounds. There is a huge desire on the part of the legal establishment to promote and establish diversity and I believe that the SEC can be in the vanguard of change. The Attorney General is determined to widen access to the Treasury Solicitor Panel and I recently attended an event, “Widening the Pool”, which emphasised that desire. Similarly, the Judicial Appointments Committee is determined to achieve an appropriate level of diversity. Again, I attended a JAC organised discussion at the Ministry of Justice where that desire was palpable. The specialist Bar Associations are all committed to improving access and encouraging diversity.

No discussion of this issue would be complete without emphasising the commitment of the Bar Council. Ingrid Stimmler QC, Chair of the Bar Council Equality Committee, which includes a disability sub-group, was passionate in her promotion of diversity and equal access at the recent “Widening the Pool” event. Both Pamela Bhalla and Angela Campbell, at the Bar Council, are an invaluable source of support and guidance and are committed to implementing the recommendations of the Neuberger Report.

I am also keen to promote, through the Circuit and the Inns, more diversity training on Circuit. Obviously the CDMs should have received such training but, having undergone some training myself, it is a remarkably complex area raising many ethical and practical problems. However a proper understanding of discrimination and diversity is vital to understanding the challenges we face if we are to have a representative, diverse and high quality Bar. Finally, I would like to conclude by urging those who wish to assist to contact me at martin.forde@1cor.com.

Martin Forde QC is a barrister at 1 Crown Office Row