The end of the year is always a chance to look back and reflect on people you have met over the past months. In my role as shadow justice minister, I have a lot to be thankful for. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a range of people with an interest in the law – from lawyers who have supported me with policy development, to victims who have bravely spoken out so we can demand action from the government, to charities who are tirelessly working to stem the tide of negative consequences from the government’s disastrous record of cuts to everything from policing to prisons to legal aid.
But this new year I will be thinking of one incredible young woman in particular, who reminds me just how much there is to do to make sure that those responsible for our justice system look like the country they serve.
Earlier this year I met 18 year old Bryony Toon, a care leaver who receives free school meals at Quarrydale School in my former coalfields constituency. She was part of the Sutton Trust’s excellent Pathways scheme, designed to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access the professions.
Despite Bryony’s difficult start in life, she has a monumental drive to succeed. After her post-16 advisor suggested she use her sharp mind, outstanding grades and “strengths in arguing” to explore a career in the law, she set out to seize every opportunity available. She landed work experience at top law firm Clifford Chance, and applied for Oxford University.
This was certainly a smart move. The statistics show your chances of doing almost any job at the top of the legal sector are significantly enhanced if you come from a wealthy background – one thing Bryony cannot achieve through hard work alone.
The Sutton Trust say that 71 per cent of top QCs, 74 per cent of judges and 51 per cent of partners in top law firms had attended an independent school – an astonishing state of affairs given that just seven per cent of children are educated privately. Even amongst less elite legal roles like solicitors, a whopping 27 per cent go to private school, according to figures from the Law Society.
Bryony can certainly try to get herself some elite credentials by applying for Oxford. After all, three quarters of judges, and 80 per cent of top QCs went to Oxbridge, so it’s virtually a pre-requisite.
But it seems that it just isn’t that easy.
She had an interview at Brasenose College earlier this month, and diligently prepared for every possible question she could be asked. But when it came down to it, no amount of preparation could change the fact that she just didn’t feel she belonged. She was left feeling totally out of place after meeting other candidates and students who seemed to be from a different world.
“I felt massively marginalised and left out from ‘posh’ people,” she said. “Even if I get an offer, I’m now not sure Oxford is for me.”
This month I also spoke to some other amazing young women from non-traditional backgrounds, who are further along in their career journey.
Deeba Syed, Chair of Young Labour Lawyers, told me, “There is a culture of white middle-class etiquette. Our Christmas party is a black-tie event – I’ve never been to a black-tie event before. If you are talking about your life and reveal you’re from a different social strata, I think it can affect your performance and happiness.”
Another, who grew up on a council estate on free school meals, found she couldn’t get an interview, even after years of rigorous and expensive training. Feeling thoroughly demoralised, she decided to change her “Muslim-sounding” surname on the application – only to find responses from law firms rolling in. She is now a qualified solicitor, but is still angry that her background was “definitely to my detriment.”
We are now entering 2019. How can it be possible that talented young women are having to conceal their names and their backgrounds, to pursue a career in something as fundamental to our social fabric as the justice system?
Being in court is traumatic enough without being represented and judged by a cast of professionals from lawyers to justices who might as well come from a different planet.
Our legal system must start to look like the country it serves. Until there is true diversity at every stage of the pipeline to the top, some of our best and brightest will continue to feel that law is not for ‘people like them’.
Some great work is already underway, like the Sutton Trust scheme Bryony is benefitting from, and from top firms like Clifford Chance who have introduced name-blind applications, significantly increasing the numbers of non-traditional applicants they accept.
But it is clear that we have a long way to go. The Sutton Trust find it hard to provide opportunities outside London, and local firms outside London are some of the worst offenders for unpaid internships. We need to see more transparency from law firms at every level about who they are accepting.
The Inns that house the next generation of barristers are all in London. Couldn’t they establish regional centres, to draw on the full talent of the country, rather than requiring young people to leave their homes and head for the alien and expensive capital? They urgently need to expand their scholarship and bursary programmes and increase their diversity.
Oxford are taking some steps to improve access for less privileged students – Bryony took advantage of their Law Faculty scheme to give state school students a taste of what studying law is like. But the cultural barriers she faces are just enormous, and her experience at interview has made her question if this is the right place for her, even if she is accepted.
I have no doubt that Bryony will achieve her dream of becoming a human rights lawyer – her sheer determination and talent mean that the sky is the limit for her. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that Bryony’s background will make her a very rare breed at the top of the legal profession.
I want everyone working at every level of the legal sector to make it their new year’s resolution to find more people like Bryony, do everything they can to nurture their talents, and create a climate where everyone feels welcome – so that we have a truly representative justice system.