BAME Representation at the Bar: You shouldn’t have to put up with racism to be a black lawyer

October 15, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Alexandra Wilson, a criminal and family law barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill and the author of “In Black and White”, took to Twitter last month to voice her concerns and anguish over being mistaken for a defendant three times in one day.

What does this mean?

Alexandra’s tweet, that exclaimed she felt “exhausted” by the incidents, received over 10,000 likes and over 1,000 retweets. It prompted a formal apology from HMCTS Chief Executive Kevin Sadler for the “totally unacceptable behaviour” and the launch of an investigation into the incidents. “This is bigger than what happened to me on that day”, Alexander says, noting the overcriminalisation of black people and the defects of over-policing, not to mention the lack of diversity at the bar, in solicitor firms, and across HMCTS staff. 

The saga raises the question as to how a black defendant is supposed to receive a fair, evidence-based trial with such a staggering level of unconscious bias.

What's the big picture effect?

There are a few issues that Alexandra’s tweet has raised. Not only is there a systemic issue for BAME and more prominently black communities in the UK (as have been well documented through the BLM movement), but there are also deeper issues in the way in which we are trying to combat conscious and unconscious racial bias. 

Diversity training in the legal system, for example, mainly focuses on creating equal opportunities for all minority groups, despite evidence suggesting that there is a disproportionate discrimination towards black people in this particular area – we need to understand that if we are to overcome it. 

Diversity plans within the legal profession focus on target setting for all BAME groups. According to the Bar Standards Board, as of January 2020, BAME professionals made up just 13.8% of barristers, and only 8.1% of QC’s (87.4% of QC’s are white). Getting fair and proportionate BAME representation into all areas of the justice system is a great target, however it misses the crucial step of retraining those already in the profession and in supporting roles. Alexandra suggests that “much more needs to be done to educate all court staff, barristers, solicitors and anyone else working in the justice system”. This sentiment was publicly backed by Amanda Pinto QC, the Chair of the Bar Council, and Law Society of England and Wales president Simon Davis, who also added that the Society was conducting research into the experiences of BAME members, “including the impact prejudice can have on their confidence, career satisfaction and progression, and how we can drive change”. 

On 5 October 2020 the Supreme Court president, Lord Reed, said that he hoped that there was more diversity among justices, calling the incidents Alexandra faced “appalling”. He hopes to see a justice from an ethnic minority background among the 12-strong Supreme Court body before he retires, which is in 6 years. Six years might seem too long to wait for some of you hoping to enter the profession. However, it is gratifying to know that Alexandra’s tweet has attracted the attention and call to action of so many in the justice system; not only in terms of wanting to create a more diverse system, but also to look after the welfare of those minorities that have already entered the system as they battle conscious and unconscious racism on a daily basis.

Report written by Josie Laidman

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