Changes to barrister parental leave rules are “watershed moment” for diversity, says Bar Council

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has agreed to change equality rules to enable all self-employed barristers in chambers to take parental leave, regardless of whether their spouse or partner takes parental leave. 

The proposed rule changes have yet to be approved by the Legal Services Board, but would mean that barristers will be allowed to share parenting, by allowing them to take whatever leave they want up to a whole year, without having to compromise the other parent’s ability to also take a whole year of parental leave.

The BSB’s director of strategy and policy Ewen MacLeod said: “We think this could help the Bar to retain those with parental responsibilities by making it easier for self-employed barristers to combine work and family life. This could help with efforts to encourage more gender diversity within the profession, especially at the senior end.”

“Our consultation paper asked whether self-employed barristers should be able to share their parental leave entitlements, as employed barristers can, or whether each parent should have their own parental leave rights regardless of their partner’s employment status or parental leave rights. The majority of respondents favoured a rule change and most of those who wanted a change chose the latter option as being fairer and less bureaucratic

“Having considered the issues carefully with our expert advisers, we agree.”

What the changes would mean

  • Parental leave would be made available to every member of chambers who becomes a parent or a carer of a child preceding or following birth or adoption;
  • A parental leave entitlement should constitute, as a minimum, a period of one year away from practice (though a barrister would not be obliged to take the full entitlement);
  • The rule should apply to all mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents, as well as the married, civil, and de facto partners of biological or adoptive parents;
  • Chambers’ parental leave policies should allow parental leave to be taken flexibly, to enable barristers to maintain their practice and support their income while on leave; and
  • The BSB would not prescribe what form this flexibility takes, however suggestions will be included in guidance.

“A culture shift is taking place at the Bar” said the chair of the Bar, Andrew Langdon QC, in response to the announcement.

“This is a watershed moment which challenges the assumption that one parent should have to take more time out of their career, and take on more caring responsibilities, than the other. 

“We know that women who leave the Bar for extended periods of time, such as for maternity, find it hard to come back. This move will help to place both parents on a more equal footing.”

The Bar Council’s head of policy for equality and diversity Sam Mercer added: “The Bar is serious about supporting parents in the profession. This is an important moment in the journey towards a more equal profession and society.”

A Bar Council report in 2015 found female barristers felt that it had become harder to balance work and family, with one saying: “The job is simply not compatible with motherhood.”

From the archives: 1992 – Firms don’t think women would want career breaks