Saturday, 27 September 2014



                                                                150 years of achievement

The first ethnic minority lawyers

To celebrate the achievement of black lawyers I would like to go back over 150 years ago, just after the Mutiny in north India and the Government of India Act of 1858 and the declaration that Indian tradition and culture would be respected, to 1859 when Ganendar Mohan Tagore, an Indian, joined Lincoln’s Inn; he was subsequently called to the Bar in June 1862.
He was not the first recorded overseas member in Lincoln’s Inn, that honour goes to the Moroccan Ambassador who signed an entry on 4 March 1681. It is more difficult from the records to identify black African, American and West Indian bar students as many had European style names. But … the first black American was probably Thomas Chester who was admitted to Middle Temple in 1867 and called in 1870.
There were of course students from African countries, Sierra Leone and Ghana coming over in the late 19th century, taking the Bar exams and returning to practice in their countries.

Women pioneers

…For women the pioneers were equally remarkable. The first woman at Oxford University to sit Bachelor of Civil Law examination (although she could not be awarded the degree to which she was entitled for another 30 years after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919) was Cornelia Sorabji from Bengal in 1892.
From the 1920s women were joining Inns (women had petitioned Lincoln’s Inn since the 1870s without success) and were being called to the Bar although sadly not practicing for some time afterwards. Angela Holdsworth in her chapter in the Lincoln’s Inn Portrait book tells the story of Gwynneth Bebb an Oxford graduate with a first in jurisprudence who applied to sit the preliminary solicitors’ examinations in 1911 but was refused by the Law Society as a woman was not a “person” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act of 1843. Her appeals to the High Court and Court of Appeal were dismissed. She subsequently applied to join Lincoln’s Inn and although she was admitted as a student she died the following year and so was never admitted to the Bar.
The first women to be called by Lincoln’s Inn were firstly Mithan Ardeshir Tata from Bombay who came to London at the age of 20 and was called in 1923 and Mercy Ashworth a former schools inspector who was 53 at the time of her call.
The first female I have traced from West Africa was one Mrs Foster, also known as Christian, who had a Dominican father and Ghanaian mother, living in Ghana who was called to the Bar in Britain in 1945 and subsequently returned to practice in Ghana.

Progress made…

What amazing people they must have been. Since those times we now have many people from black and minority ethnic groups qualifying as barristers and solicitors, practising in chambers, from high street firms and city firms, in law centres, as in-house Counsel, in the civil service, taking silk, taking judicial appointments, we have had minority ethnic holders of high office – Linda Dobbs in the High Court and Patricia Scotland, Attorney General.

…but more is needed

Looking at the judicial statistics, they show that as at April 2009 at circuit level there were one mixed ethnicity, two black (including me) and three Asian circuit judges out of a total of 571 and for solicitors (black and white) 83. Very poor show.
However, the numbers are much more encouraging in Tribunals and even at District Judge level.
…Whilst I am on minorities in the judiciary and as I am addressing solicitors, I took the trouble to look up figures for solicitors generally and found that was equally discouraging at the higher levels. The first High Court solicitor judge was Mr Justice Sachs.
The first solicitor to go straight from practice (as opposed to the circuit bench first) was Lawrence Collins, now Justice Collins of the Supreme Court. The last set of statistics show that there are only two High Court solicitor judges.

Why is diversity important?

I think it now is trite to mention the importance of diversity in the judiciary – it is important that the public see their own diversity of background, culture, religion and gender reflected in the judiciary: it gives them the confidence of knowing that it is not an exclusive club from which they are excluded and which will not understand them.
So if it is so important why are the numbers so low?
For me personally one of the reasons it never occurred to me to aspire to be a judge was that I did not see anyone like me on the bench. And I am afraid that is still true for some – with only a handful of ethnic minority judges it is easy to miss us.

Support is available

… Having myself been often the only female and almost invariably the only black judge in courts in which I have sat, I have always found judicial colleagues to be welcoming and inclusive. Most of the other concerns are now addressed in the new competition procedures; there is a formal work shadow scheme in place, there is no requirement to be a barrister or provide judicial referees only.
I am also heartened to hear that the Law Society itself is also doing much in establishing a support group for those hoping to make applications for judicial appointment.
In the case of solicitors, colleagues have told me that it was not lack of ability or disinterest that prevented them taking up judicial appointments but it was the condition in their partnership agreements or contracts of employment which prohibited them from taking up part time judicial office. I found this to be astonishing.
If it is right and continues then I think the Law Society ought to declare that unethical and ought to make it a breach of your code of ethics for partnership or employment contracts to impose a condition that solicitors cannot undertake part-time judicial posts.
After all, what is the moral difference between that an employer refusing to release an employee to go and do jury service? Not much that I can see and I invite the Law Society to do something to discourage that practice.

Change is coming

Since Ganendar Tagore in 1859 many more ethnic minority candidates are entering the profession. The number of those taking judicial appointments is low but growing. Change is coming.
Gone are the days, I hope, when the press was interested in peripheral issues.
Mota Singh, the first ethnic minority Circuit Judge had to endure a lot more interest from some quarters in whether he should wear his turban or a wig rather than his judicial ability. Elizabeth Butler-Sloss’s appointment as the first female Court of Appeal judge also drew headlines of sex change for Court of Appeal Judge (because her title initially was Lord Justice Butler-Sloss it encouraged silly stories until she was entitled to be called Lady Justice).

My early days on the bench

When I first sat as a deputy, I sat in the West Midlands and on my first day of sitting at a particular court I was acutely aware of people coming in staying a minute or two and then leaving and of many more looking through the glass porthole.
During a lull in our list the usher had gone out to look for parties and the clerk had gone off to find the usher I found myself alone in the court room with a lady from probation who then took the opportunity, as we were alone, to ask if she could speak and said that she felt immensely happy to see me on the bench as it was the first time she had seen a female judge or a black judge.
She also explained that that was the buzz in the corridor, defendants hearing the news were saying “never” and rushing to look to see if it was true.

Ability – the only thing that matters

Hopefully now questions of gender and colour are becoming non newsworthy. It is ability that counts.
That is what you need and none of the qualities needed to be a judge – knowledge, fairness, independence, integrity, good communication skills, understanding people etc – none of them depend on colour or gender.