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 Access and progression: My journey to the Bar

Editors Pick Access and progression: My journey to the Bar

 Francesca Gardner is a barrister at Kings Chamber which operates out of Chambers in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. Here she discusses race and social mobility at the Bar and how far we still have to go when it comes to access and progression.

I am a mixed-race, Yorkshire woman who comes from a working-class background in Dewsbury.  I was called to the Bar in 2004 and have practiced from Kings Chambers as a personal injury barrister throughout my career.  My Grandad Alford Gardner arrived in England from Jamaica on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, having previously served as an Engineer in the RAF in England in 1947.  He married my brave, white, English Nana Norma, and raised eight mixed race children.  I am now part of a huge extended family.  While he is now celebrated as a pioneer and recently met King Charles and opened the Windrush memorial with the Prince and Princess of Wales, I am aware that my Grandad was not always as welcome here, and recalls being turned away from jobs and accommodation.  In his life and the life of the four generations who have followed him, I can see the huge, positive change in society.  However, I can also see how far we still have to go at the Bar and in the judiciary in terms of access and progression.

What is your role in Chambers and how did it come about?

In 2020/2021, keen to lead change in relation to race and social mobility issues, but lacking the confidence to do so, I took part in the inaugural Bar Council Leadership Programme.  The programme aimed to improve the leadership skills of participants with a view to enabling us to encourage positive change at the Bar in relation to diversity issues.  We focused on access, retention, progression, fair allocation of work and gender and race pay gaps at the Bar.

 

At around the same time, some members of the North Eastern Circuit set up a Diversity Group also aiming to make positive change and I was delighted to be involved from the outset.

Subsequently, I approached our EDOs and Head of Chambers Paul Tucker KC and expressed my interest in taking a formal role in Chambers.  Following discussions, I was appointed as a ‘Racial Diversity and Social Mobility Champion,’ with the full and enthusiastic approval of Paul who is very keen to ensure that fairness and diversity remain a central part of Kings Chambers ethos, following in the footsteps on his excellent predecessor.

What does your role entail?

I am now a member of the EDI Committee in Chambers, and participate in making recommendations to chambers about changes in policy.  Chambers continue to examine policies and procedures and it is clear from my interactions with members that there is a willingness to question and learn and develop, with a view to improving equality and diversity at the Bar generally and within our own chambers.

I drafted our anti-racism statement for publication on the website, and I am a point of contact for members of chambers wishing to raise relevant issues.  I keep abreast of relevant literature and research and wider recommendations and bring them to chambers’ attention, although it is our EDOs who will lead in relation to drafting any actual changes.  (I know my weaknesses!).  I have also attended a number of round table discussions to contribute to things such as the Race at the Bar Report 2021, the findings of which were eye opening, and the recommendations of which we immediately looked to implement in chambers.

I am also a member of the Recruitment Committee, participating in all stages of recruitment including policies and procedures as well as the process itself.  While the roles are separate, I find the knowledge and experience from both roles inform and support each other.  My own experience of applying to the Bar with a CV full of factory and shop work also brings a different perspective to the process.

My main role in chambers is the promotion of diversity schemes related to race and social mobility, and leading those schemes when implemented in chambers.

What Schemes have chambers been involved in and how will you follow up on them?

I was delighted that Chambers agreed to participate in and contribute funding to the 10,000 Black Interns programme, which aimed to provide black applicants with 6-week paid internships. In conjunction with a number of other chambers on both circuits, we took interns in Leeds and Manchester, offering shadowing, marshalling, advocacy, drafting and researching opportunities.  We also took two younger students offering similar work as part of the Bar Placement Scheme.

In 2023, we will continue our participation in both those schemes.  In addition, we are looking to introduce our own programme along the same lines as Creating Connections which we ran in 2020.  This scheme joined Chambers together with a local charity and local businesses to provide disadvantaged students, (most of whom coincidentally were from minority ethnic backgrounds), with opportunities to build skills, network, improve their CVs, and undertake work experience over a week long placement.

I have been pleased to follow up with a number of students from Creating Connections onwards, and have provided advice on applications, references, further work experience opportunities and general advice as well as support and congratulations as I watch the students blossom.

What have you done outside of Chambers?

I was privileged to participate in the North Eastern Circuit Diversity Group video, and contribute some written materials, talking about some of the challenges I faced personally, socially, and economically on my journey to the Bar.  The project is aimed at encouraging students from all backgrounds to consider a career at the Bar, and to consider why their own personal identity and experience is a positive asset to bring to the Bar.  Under the leadership of our new Leader of Circuit, Jason Pitter KC, who I understand is the first black leader of any circuit, following on the excellent work of Richard Wright KC, we hope to push the video and materials into as many schools as possible.

On a personal note, I have also offered mini-pupillages with me to a number of local students who I know would not otherwise have had the opportunity.  I got my own first mini-pupillage at the age of 15 by a lucky chance, and I am keen to pay that forward.  I also recognised my own personal responsibility in seeking to improve the diversity within the judiciary, as experienced by lay and professional court users alike.  I now sit in the Mental Health Tribunal, and have recently been appointed as a Civil Deputy District Judge on the North Eastern Circuit.  I’m glad that a young barrister from Dewsbury following in my footsteps may now come across someone who looks and sounds a bit like her in the future when appearing in Court.

Any concluding thoughts?

I personally have felt a sea change at the Bar in the last couple of years.  It no longer feels like people are paying lip service to the issue of diversity.  Rather, there is a real and meaningful desire and intent across all participants in the Bar, be it individuals, Inns, the Bar Council or the Bar associations, to actually do something.  I sincerely hope that this change can be the beginning of the end of this conversation.  Change comes slowly but come it must.  I don’t want to be having these same discussions by the time I finish my career.

 

Francesca Gardner, Kings Chamber

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