Your chambers aren’t colour blind, top QC tells barristers

Thomas: We have to change mindsets

Barristers who believe their chambers are ‘colour-blind’ and treat everyone the same “have a problem” and need to change their mindset, a high-profile black QC has said.

“‘Colour blindness’ does not work in a system where everyone at the top of judicial power is white, everyone in the ‘best’ chambers is white, and the two ‘best’ universities in the country have a lack of black entrants,” said Leslie Thomas QC.

“If you are a person of colour, just seeing this would set alarm bells going. We cannot just take race off the table. It needs to be discussed.”

Mr Thomas, until recently joint head of Garden Court Chambers, has just been appointed the first black professor of law at Gresham College, the 400-year-old free public university in London.

A member too of the Bar Standards Board, Mr Thomas said diversity statistics made him think at times that the Bar was actually moving backwards.

“Racism and discriminatory behaviours pervade all levels of society and our legal system is not immune from the same. I have experienced it many times in my career. One judge said to me, ‘Mr Thomas, in this country we do things in this way…’

“Just think about it: if I can be treated in this way and I am a member of a well-respected profession, it takes very little imagination to think how black defendants are treated.”

Writing in a personal capacity for Counsel magazine, Mr Thomas recounted the experience of one black barrister who was told by a judge “that it was nice to see her ‘sitting on this side of the table’, pointing to the side of the table where counsel sit. Another judge told her at a training event that she did not have ‘negroid features’”.

He continued: “There is no doubt that many sectors, practice areas and chambers within our profession lack racial diversity…

“It has long been well known there is an under-representation of people of colour in the Chancery and commercial bar and in other specialist sectors. Why are there more people of colour in less lucrative and/or publicly funded areas such as crime?

“Why is there still a gross under-representation of black judges? In 2020 there are still no black male High Court judges. We had one full-time black woman High Court judge in recent times who has since retired (Dame Linda Dobbs QC DBE was a High Court judge from 2004 to 2013). There are no black Court of Appeal or Supreme Court judges.”

Mr Thomas identified messaging as a major problem. “If top commercial chambers are predominantly ‘white, male and older’, getting a message across to them of change is implicitly saying there is something fundamentally wrong with you. This is a difficult message to swallow.

“It is always difficult to change and challenge the status quo, particularly from the outside. There has to be a willingness to tackle this from within.

“But some harsh realities need to be confronted. Firstly, to discuss diversity and improving diversity particularly as it concerns race, there needs to be a proper and honest discussion about racism.

“You see, it is possible to get to the top of our profession without ever discussing racism. It is not a job requirement to get to the top of our profession. It is possible to turn a blind eye to it. We can pretend if we don’t see it, it isn’t there. We can be comfortable with the status quo or the cards we have been dealt with.

“However, the reality is there for all to see – if we care to look. We as a profession have to move beyond seeing racism as individual characteristics. We need to understand racism as a system, not an event. None of us are exempt from its forces.”

Mr Thomas said progress would be when the profession recognised that racism did necessarily come from individuals, and did not need to be conscious or intentional.

“I believe we have to change mindsets. We do that, I believe, by getting our profession to buy into why they should feel the need to change…

“White members of our profession need to understand that questioning the way things currently are is not about them being attacked, shamed, accused or judged. These are normal reactions and to be expected.

“But it is more a recognition that we as a profession can improve our lot; questions of being good or bad are irrelevant.

“It is a recognition that advantage may well be tied to race and that is systemic. We should forget the guilt and take action. History matters. Bias is implicit and often unconscious. More importantly, it takes great courage to change this system.”

    Readers Comments

  • Jo says:

    I fully agree with you, I experience racism with solicitors, barristers and judge’s. I have no trust in the legal system.

  • Alison says:

    He is not wrong. This profession is racist as hell. Just depressing and getting worse. And they’ve made sure even less black people are in it by increasing law and bar school fees. I’m fed up of dealing with blatantly racist “colleagues”.

  • AC says:

    While reading this article I felt a number of emotions. Firstly, as a black woman, I worry, every day whether I will be judged by the colour of my skin or my ability to do the job when I become a solicitor. Secondly, I have also experienced racism first-hand and as a bi-racial woman, I ponder at times as to whether it is ignorance or a lack of understanding by others that have resulted in the perpetual cycle of racism. To first understand why slavery hurts the black community it will take all of us joining forces. The history of slavery needs to taught in our schools as a foundational subject, then and only then can there be some true understanding of the hurt and humiliation that our forefathers endured. Indeed, many law firms need to fully embrace diversity and inclusion, across all legal spectrum. It is not about being able to just fill the gaps to appear diverse but letting your actions speak for themselves.

  • Mohammed Bello says:

    There is a pool of skills, right at our doorstep, which is sadly not being utilised. I am inclined
    to think that it’s deliberate to reinforce the glass ceiling. And it’s unfortunate. I feel that there is a conspiracy of silence and a conscious attempt to discourage disadvantaged groups from entering the profession, using the excuse of pre-requisites, such as a prior experience for a job. You have a legal qualification, went to law school and passed your pre-qualification exams with flying colours. You are newly qualified, yet are being avoided like a plague because you are considered not experienced enough. Until firms make a determined effort to give NQs a real chance to learn on the job, the skills shortage will widen. So many have been frustrated that it’s now a high time this unspoken policy was changed. Law is an investment of a lifetime. People are not going to have the experience unless you give them a chance.

  • Will says:

    I remember when a student at Cambridge a solicitor using the n word whilst using the photocopier in the law library. Although I reported the incident to the Head now a LJ, he was refused to divulge the individual’s name. When it happened the second time, no action was taken and as far I recall no action was taken. The ugly and unacceptable face of racism is deeply rooted in every part of the society, but you don’t except it to be so brazen in a law school. A couple of years later, it happen again this time at Cardiff Law School. A law professor and his side kick made highly offensive remark against a female administrator, although she didn’t hear the comments I did. On both counts no action was taken. That professor has since left and is teaching elsewhere.

  • Natalie says:

    I know the whole court system is racist and support your views.
    How can this country still accept an all white Jury trialing young black men. They have no chance.

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