Law students and barristers have slammed BPP university law school’s strict dress code, which penalises students who wear “short skirts” in their exams.
The BPP handbook, obtained by website Legal Cheek, says students will be docked two points if they wear a short skirt - defined as any skirt that is above the knee - to their advocacy assessments. The strict rules also stipulate that colourful socks will lose students one point, while “kinky boots”, such as those with a stiletto, will cost you two points.
Critics of the code claim it perpetuates sexism within the industry, arguing examiners should be focussing on what trainee barristers are saying, rather than what they’re wearing.
Ellie Digby, 20, a law student at Lancaster University, tells HuffPost UK during her training she’s only heard of students being instructed to wear “professional attire” during certain exams and competitions. “Telling a person that the length of their skirt defines their ability to do well leaves a bad taste in my mouth, why should we be judged on our clothing and not our skills, knowledge or personality?” she says.
Tasneem-Summer Khan, 30, a law student training at City University is “disappointed” by BPP’s stance because “professionalism is not measured by the length of one’s skirt”. She believes the warning is part of a wider problem of how women’s dress is “policed” in society.
She says during her training, tutors have simply advised students to ‘wear what you’d wear to court’ for their advocacy assessment. “Personally, I find this a more respectful way to advise a student,” she says. “It provides guidance for students - who have enough situational awareness to know the difference between court attire and club wear - without proposing that the difference is found in ‘length of the skirt.’”
Felicity Williams, 40, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, also disagrees with BPP’s strict rules. She says once you’re working in the field, knowing what to wear is “common sense” and students do not need such “oppressive dress codes”. Williams wears dark suits with wigs and gowns when she’s appearing in High Court, but day-to-day in the chambers she is less formal - today, for example, she is wearing a skirt that would be considered “too short” by BPP.
“I think it’s important that women are able to express their own identities and feel comfortable with what they’re wearing,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Clearly the most important thing is going to be your knowledge of the law, your ability to produce good advocacy and articulate an argument well - those are the priorities. I think it’s very sad for students if they think their dress is going to be the centre of attention, or something that is going to result in marks being lost.”
Williams believes the focus on women’s skirt length is a reflection of a wider issue of sexism within the industry. The Bar Standards Board’s 2016 report found two in every five women respondents said they had suffered harassment at the Bar and more than two in every five had experienced discrimination. “Until women feel that they are able to work in an environment on an equal basis, I feel the risk of that kind of treatment continuing is much higher,” she says.
Commenting on the dress code a BPP spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “This list is in an appendix to our manual on Advocacy. It is there as indicative guidance only to the sort of dress and behaviour which could adversely affect the advocate in court, and could, therefore, be penalised in a BPP assessment.
“Our students dress conservatively and smartly for their advocacy classes and indeed for the assessment, and this is good preparation for practice. It is exceptionally rare that any student is ever penalised in an assessment for any of the infringements listed. The list has not been revised for a long time, and will be reconsidered before the next publication.”