A barrister has come under fire from his own chambers and other barristers for tweeting that “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour”.
Jon Holbrook, a senior junior at Cornerstone Barristers, has not deleted the tweet at the time of writing, despite being asked to by his chambers.
He told Legal Futures that his political views were “never expressed as a member of Cornerstone Barristers, because they have nothing to do with my work as a member”, and that “free speech must prevail over cancel culture”.
He made the comment on 17 January in response to a tweet from the Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighting a video it had made telling the story of a Black girl, Ruby Williams, sent home from school because her Afro-style hair breached its uniform policy.
The commission became involved and the school agreed to end its discriminatory policy, and its tweet said: “The Equality Act 2010 is clear; no one should face discrimination because of their race,” it said.
It appears that Mr Holbrook’s response was not really picked up until Friday, at which point there was strong condemnation from many users, with people saying they had reported him to the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and accusing the tweet of being racist.
The barrister reported on Saturday that Twitter had rejected a complaint about the tweet. He wrote: “Twitter strikes a blow for free speech. (I didn’t think I’d be making that point any time soon.)”
Ruby’s mother, Kate Williams, said he had not replied to a message she sent him.
Her tweet to him went on: “I wanted to say thanks. By trying to say she was in the wrong… you’ve actually highlighted this awful form of discrimination again. The world is changing!!!”
In a message issued on Saturday, Cornerstone said it had only become aware of Mr Holbrook’s message late on Friday.
“We want to make it very clear that Cornerstone Barristers repudiates the contents of the tweet and all that it insinuates. The contents of the tweet do not in any way reflect the views of Cornerstone Barristers.
“The individual has been asked to delete the tweet immediately and permanently and we are undertaking an urgent internal investigation into the matter.
“We unequivocally condemn discrimination in all of its forms and are proud of our record as a diverse chambers which promotes social mobility at the Bar. We are fully committed to equality, diversity and tolerance.”
Other barristers also weighed in. Becky Agates of Foregate Chambers wrote: “I’ve sat here staring at the screen… unable to write… you’re a member of my profession… a profession I love & respect… yet you feel safe & comfortable tweeting something like this… what is wrong with you (apart from the obvious)… do the right thing, take it down.”
David Turner QC of 4 New Square described it as “the most shameful tweet” he had ever seen from a barrister, and apologised to Mrs Williams, saying “you and Ruby do not deserve this”.
She responded: “Thankful we had such brilliant representation for years! Won’t let this person change our experience of paralegals, solicitors, barristers and the judge! This guy is nobody to us. He’s raising awareness by accident!”
Leslie Thomas QC wrote: “Jon I can’t believe you sent this tweet what happened to you? I was once proud to have you as a colleague at Garden Court fighting for the rights of others -v- rogue landlords in our younger days. This tweet is just wrong makes you unrecognisable to me now which why I call it out.”
Toby Cadman of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers said: “What an utterly appalling remark for anyone to utter much less a member of the bar.”
Naomi Dean of Cornwall Street Barristers pointed users to the BSB website to complain, saying she was “ashamed” to say Mr Holbrook was a member of the Bar.
Mr Holbrook told Legal Futures: “Liberal democracies are premised on free speech and we curtail it at our peril. Through my articles and tweets I have for many years criticised laws that use individual rights to trump collective interests. Many provisions of the Equality Act do this.
“Some legal activists of the left would prefer to silence their opponents. They are unable to engage in reasoned argument and they want a legal profession of practitioners who conform to their own woke opinions.
“My political views are never expressed as a member of Cornerstone Barristers, because they have nothing to do with my work as a member.
“My day job is concerned with how the law is, my political interest is concerned with how it should be. Many of my critics seem unable to grasp this distinction. Others are simply motivated by a loathing for conservative and populist opinions. Free speech must prevail over cancel culture.”
He added that he was publishing an article today to amplify the view expressed in his tweet.
Mr Holbrook’s Twitter biography describes him thus: “Barrister. For democracy. Against identity politics.”
This could be significant during any BSB investigation, as the question of whether it should police a barrister’s conduct outside of practice is influenced in cases like this by whether they identify themselves as a member of the Bar.
He qualified in 1991 and his practice covers public law, housing and property. After 12 years at Garden Court Chambers and two at Hardwicke Building, he joined Cornerstone Barristers in 2006.
Mr Holbrook’s Twitter timeline make clear his support for Brexit, describing the EU-UK treaty as having been “drafted by globalists to constrain the democratic will of the British people”.
He is also vocal in his backing for Donald Trump – including the ex-president’s claim that the election was stolen from him – and disdain for Joe Biden, whom he called “a globalist whose disrespect of sovereignty will create war & human misery”.
He likened the upcoming impeachment hearing of President Trump to a Stalinist show trial, while speaking out against ‘woke’ culture and the BBC among others.
Mr Holbrook has written for Spiked and more recently The Critic magazine.