SOCIETY OF BLACK LAWYERS: A HISTORY OF RADICALISM, STRUGGLE AND ACHIEVMENT
The Society of Black Lawyers (SBL) is only the last in a long line of community and voluntary organisations to challenge colonialism and racism in the United Kingdom. The historical position is that the Judges and the courts in the United Kingdom played a central role in the maintenance of slavery and colonialism despite the Somerset case. It is therefore no wonder that there should have been a cultural reluctance to admit that racism was an intrinsic although sometimes subtle part of the British judicial history.
Although no one was prosecuted despite the best efforts of the abolitionist Granville Sharp the Courts in 1797 finally recognised that Africans could not be treated as merchandise when 132 starved to death on the unusually long voyage. Lord Chief Justice Kenyon pointedly asked whether the Captain of the ship had starved to death and was told he had not.
The Somerset decision illustrated that the Judges in England whilst quite willing to tolerate slavery in the colonies were unwilling to countenance “slavery” in the UK. In 1868, the leading Chartist, Charles Wedderburn was deported to Australia for fourteen years of hard labour for his nor guilty plea and part in the Chartist uprising. He asked to be tried by a “jury of his peers” making one of the first applications for a multi racial jury.
The former MP supported the Pan African Congress for Battersea Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the first instances of African/Asian solidarity in the UK. The militant African Review and Orient Review stated,
“ Your day is coming, Your place in the sun has been and will come again….The future of Africa, the future of India, will not be decided in the Chancelleries of Europe, but upon the hills of India and the plains of Africa “. (July 1912).
In 1913 barristers were unable to dine at Gray’s Inn with their white counterparts with no objections being recorded from any benchers. The race riots in 1919 in South Shields, Liverpool, Cardiff and Bristol saw members of the Judiciary incarcerate large numbers of British African, Caribbean and Asian ex serviceman and women and their families. Many were deported back to the Caribbean and India when they tried to challenge the British establishment.
In 1921 the most radical Pan African Congress was attended by W.B. Du Bois, Dr John Alcindor and J.R. Archer were remarkably outspoken in their condemnation of imperialism and racism. The West African Students Union led by Laipo Solanke, called to the Middle Temple in 1917, formed in 1925, was attended by 21 law students who later became famous as judges, magistrates, barristers and politicians around the colonial world.
In 1928 Mahatma Gandhi, together with Jawalarl Nehru (the former having been expelled from South Africa for his activism and agitation about working conditions in the Johannesburg goldfields) were both then disbarred from the Middle Temple for their “agitation” against British colonial rule in India. Krishna Menon, practiced as a barrister in London after being called to the Bar in 1927 and led the struggle with the politician Saklatvala for the end of British rule in India through the India League becoming India primary delegate to the United Nations after the second world war. After their deaths their were both posthumously re admitted to the Middle Temple where their portraits are still the only BME barristers on display
The Pan African Congress In Manchester in 1945 became central to the anti colonial struggle and brought together such legendary figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, C.L.R. James, Ras Makonnenen and I.T.A Wallace. The declarations were impressive for their simplicity and radicalism,
“We are determined to be free… We are unwilling to starve any longer while doing the world’s drudgery, in order to support by our poverty and ignorance a false aristocracy and a discredited Imperialism”.
African, Caribbean and Asian lawyers played a key role in the struggle against British colonialism and imperialism at home and in the UK. The Jamaican lawyer Michael Manley came to the UK to represent some Jamaican defendants after the Second World War. In the late 1960’s Rudy Narayan, originally from Guyana organised legal advice clinics in Brixton and Notting Hill alongside the Caribbean Times. Joined by Sigbat Kadri they formed the Society of Immigrant Lawyers, becoming the Society of Commonwealth Lawyers and finally the Society of Black Lawyers in 1973.
The trials arguing “community self defence” after attacks by the National Front in Bradford, the “Bradford Twelve” and the “Mangrove 9” trials involving Frank Critchlow passed into legal legend. In 1985 a group of largely African barristers successfully defended a large group of Rastafarians and Pan Africans who had broken into the British Museum to “liberate” various African antiquities but who were convicted only one person for taking some books on physics! The founders of the SBL Rudy and Sigbat led the charge often with a whole row of African, Caribbean and Asian barristers successfully fighting for their clients. Rudy claimed that it often felt he “had one foot in the dock and one foot at the Bar”.
Their argument supported by an all white jury was that they could not steal goods that were theirs by right! Rudy established the right to have a Judge recused for racial discrimination after a case before the Birmingham Employment Tribunal where he was threatened with being disbarred for doing so. An agreement was reached between the Bar Council and the then Commission for Racial Equality in 1989 providing for such an application to be made without the barrister or solicitor facing disciplinary proceedings for making the application.
The Benson Commission on the Legal Profession recognised in 1979 held that there was systematic discrimination and that many BME solicitors and barristers could not gain entry into the profession. In 1982 proposals were formulated to create a Bar Race Relations Committee to address issues of discrimination. The Bar Race Relations Committee was formed shortly after wards, followed closely by the Law Society Race Committee. Lord Gifford and Jocelyn Gibbs were amongst those who advocated for change. The Brixton, Handsworth and Liverpool 8 uprisings of 1981 led to the report by Lord Scarman with defence campaigns being led by Rudy Narayan, Sigbat Kadri and others. At the Bar school in 1980 there were approximately 60 BME barristers seeking pupillage with many facing serious discrimination and sexism. Trainee solicitors seeking a training contract faced similar problems with some taking years to obtain a contract.
In 1985 SBL played a key role in the Handsworth Defence Campaign in Birmingham with barristers Michael Hall playing a leading roe in challenging the racism of the Birmingham magistrates in a case called Akpabio. Mr Akpabio was the first person given a community sentence after an unjust conviction when barrister Peter Herbert challenged the bench to sentence him to imprisonment. They backed down but issued a press release saying that they treated “our coloured people” very fairly in Birmingham”. A request was sent by the SBL Chair William Panton to the African National Congress (ANC) which led to the late Nelson Mandela agreeing to be the patron of the SBL. The SBL Committee had the benefit of ANC member Martin Mabilitsa providing a crucial link to the liberation movements of Southern Africa throughout this turbulent period.
In 1986 the pictures of the Soweto uprising, the photos of the shooting of black teenager Hector Pieterson rang out around the world was accompanied by massive repression by the apartheid Government of South Africa. SBL demonstrated outside the South African Embassy joined by Platts Mills Q.C., solicitor Michael Reid, Joy Okoye, Tanoo Mylvaganam, Anesta Weekes Q.C. and many others. There were several of us like barrister, Delano Bart, who were quite scared of being arrested but we are all very safe in the end. Our protest led to an official compliant being lodged by the then South African Ambassador to the UK Foreign Office so it had worked and been noted.
SBL worked with the “Lawyers against Apartheid” group to place mounting pressure on the Bar and the Law Society who eventually agreed to de invest in South Africa. The then Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew called Peter Herbert in Chambers directly to try, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to drop the motion at the Bar AGM supporting the Soweto uprising. He was told that to suggest as he did that, “saying imprisoning 14,000 children might sometimes be necessary” was not a sentiment we were unimpressed with let alone the media.
In 1989 SBL members took part in a series of Public Order cases in Liverpool, which were won challenging the racial profiling of policing in Liverpool where galleries of the local community were kept in Hope Street and Admiral Street police stations. The three defendants, Stephen Nze, Peter Thomas, and Leslie Thomas subsequently took stage at the annual SBL conference. Liverpool 8 Law Centre provided an enormous welcome from Solomon Bassey, Peter Bassey, Maria O’Reilly and Maneh Brown amongst many others in the community. In the years that followed that connection with SBL was maintained with many members of the local community obtaining significant damages from the Merseyside Police with the assistance of Elkan Abrahamson and other radical local solicitors. At the time there were no African, Caribbean or Asian barristers working in Liverpool. SBL member Nigel Fraser gave a brilliant defence speech telling the jury that he himself was from the Handsworth ghetto in Birmingham, and the first of his brothers not to end up in a life of crime but to go to University and become a barrister. The jury was reminded of Liverpool’s history of slavery, asked to consider the exemplary and poignant story of John Demerette, a Liverpuddlian, St Lucian amputee and veteran of the Third battle of Ypres prevented form dining at the Belmont Hospital protected by white and black soldiers. Demerette was discharged from the British army and blamed for the insurrection that followed and only recognised as a victim of hate crime years later. The all white jury wept and acquitted all three defendants to the anger of the Presiding Judge of Liverpool, HHJ Wickham who ordered riot police to wait outside Court to arrest anyone making a disturbance. Defence witnesses included the veteran Labour campaigner, Sir Lady Simy, who spoke eloquently of police racism. Lord Gifford’s report on policing in Liverpool provided the backdrop to the case, with the celebrated poet Benjamin Zephaniah providing the entertainment at the victory party.
The SBL obtained funding and established a small office in the Brixton Enterprise Centre with a director and part time administrator before moving several years later to a new office in Stockwell. SBL grew to prominence with regular media appearances of members on Question Time, newsnight and a whole range of national and international print journals. Former Chair Chris Boothman and Employment Judge Christiana Hyde (her current title) produced a BBC2 documentary on the racism in the criminal justice system aired on BBC2 in 1988.
In October of that year SBL sent 23 delegates, including Rudy Narayan, Nicola Williams, the late barrister Sandra Graham and many others to participate in the National Conference for Black Lawyers annual meeting held at Howard University, Washington DC. We were entertained at Blues Alley in Georgetown by the late legendary jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan, met the internationally renowned political activist, Professor Angela Davis as well as members of the Attica Prison Riot. There was a solid week of political inspiration and learning with some of the best thinkers of the US civil rights movement. Leaders of the NCBL such as Adjua Ayetoro and others visited London in subsequent years to keep that unity alive.
Returning from the US the SBL implemented its political master class by immediately requesting a meeting with the Lord Chancellor, Lord McKay of Clashfern at the House of Lords. We obtained a warm welcome although it took over thirty minutes to explain that yes we were African and Asian lawyers and yes we were there not to visit the building but to met the Lord Chancellor. Those meetings continued on an annual basis throughout his time in office. The lessons of the US civil rights movement were reinforced by Kawme Toure (Sykely Carmichael) , speaking to SBL at County Hall, at the old GLC building in 1984, were to “organise, organise and organise” and use the mainstream media to educate and reach our own people.
In 1990 the SBL attended the 50th anniversary of the National Institute for the Advancement of Coloured People (NACCP) in New York addressed by Rudy Narayan and Peter Herbert. SBL was reported by a legal woman’s rights activist in a legal publication in Japan for the first time. In 1992 the SBL made submissions to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice advocating multi racial juries and the need for race training for all members of the full and part time Judiciary. In a campaign run jointly with the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) and the then Assistant General Secretary, Harry Fletcher, the Black Probation Officers Association and the Association of Black Social Workers we successfully exposed examples of judicial racism across the UK. These embarrassing and outrageous comments, such as “murderous Sikhs,” ,“Nig-Nogs” and “N in the woodpile,” led to the implementation of s95 of the Criminal Justice Act 19991. In coming years the report by Dr Roger Hood of Oxford University would again highlight the disparity in sentencing, especially between white and African Caribbean and Asian defendants, based on a comprehensive study of several thousand defendants at Wolverhampton and Walsall Crown Courts
In June 1992 the National Bar Association visited the UK, and took part in a mock trial in Kensington Town Hall with barristers Karl King, Courtney Griffiths Q.C. and others laying key roles. When the appalling beating of Rodney King flashed across television screens worldwide SBL demonstrated outside the US Embassy in London being joined by the legendary black M.P.,Bernie Grant M.P., the National Black Caucus and many other organisations to protest at what was occurring.
When the police uprisings in Watts in Los Angeles took place the SBL was able to call an African American surgeon working in the local hospital and have direct access to most of the UK media who were afraid to go out on the street. A joint press release was put out by SBL, the National Bar Association (NBA) and the Black Lawyers Association of Canada (BALSA) and faxed to news agencies around the world stating our condemnation of the failure of the US justice system. Within a few weeks SBL joined the NBA in having discussions with the US Ambassador to the UK who openly admitted the US Justice system had , “messed up”.
Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence the first of several visits by the Reverend Al Sharpton was met with hostility by the British Media. A Government Minister sneered that you cannot “launch the revolution from the Mayfair Hilton International” but instead it was Al Sharpton who took on the UK media and won hands down. His various attacks on the UK establishment and even on the Queen and her “stolen” crown jewels guaranteed attention for the racial murder victims. A meeting at Friends House, Euston Road, in London was attacked by racists with a firebomb but the meeting led to a successful march on Holborn Police Station in the aftermath of the attack with police helicopters overhead, to free an Asian brother unlawfully detained by police. SBL helped lead the march and played a significant part in the community led campaign demonstrating over three days with the parents of Rolan Adams, Richard and Audrey Adams, at the Notting Hill carnival on the All saints Road. We worked together with key activists such as Lee Jasper, Rita Patel, Simon Wooley, Claudia Webbe, Suresh Grover and Maxey Hayles amongst many others too numerous to mention.
In many public order situations from London to Cardiff to Liverpool and even to Derby African, and Asian communities have often had to act in self defence. In Derby in 1996 where a local nightclub, Rosco’s, had a policy of excluding young black men this “colour bar” reached new heights when white bouncers battered a young black man who tried to enter the club with his white friends. Subsequently a group of his friends went to the club and were met with an assault by the club owners and then by the local police force.
The police were happy to take statements saying it looked like a scene form the film, “Zulu” so embedding a racist culture in the evidence. The victim was charged along with his friends, his mother who was a local magistrate was even suspended from sitting by the local bench, and the trial moved to Leicester to prevent local prejudices with a large degree of community support from BME communities in the Peartree Road area. Most defendants were acquitted with SBL playing a leading role in providing for barristers and solicitors who fought the case whose members of the local Bar were trying to persuade defendants to plead guilty.
Meetings were held with the then Home Secretary Kenneth Baker M.P. and Bernie Grant M.P. to pursue the argument for the introduction of racially aggravated ofences. This campaign eventually led to the introduction of racially aggravated offences in the Crime and Disorder Bill of 1998. Our organisation worked closely with the Labour shadow front bench Home Affairs team, Newham Monitoring Project, the National Black Caucus and many others to persuade the new Labour Government in 1997 to hold the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. The SBL joined others in giving evidence to the Inquiry but were the first to advocate the exception to the “Double Jeopardy “ rule to permit a fresh prosecution where new evidence came to light.
The strategy to invite the Deputy Assistant US Attorney General Eric Holder to address Hate Crime in the UK in December 1998 was done to outflank the UK Government to place international pressure on the UK Government to introduce all the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. The visit by Nelson Mandela to meet the Lawrence family and subsequently Brixton also brought huge political and media pressure on the UK Government. During the Inquiry itself the SBL met and interviewed Louis Farrakhan at this home in Chicago in 1996 following a National Bar Association conference. SBL helped to negotiate a visa for the Minister via the British Consulate which was only revoked after an ill disciplined skirmish between some members of the Nation of Islam and police officers as they attended the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry at the Elephant and Castle. The then Home Secretary, Jack Straw used this event as an excuse to maintain the ban against a visit by the Minister which had been set up with the direct assistance of the SBL.
In 2002 SBL attended the International Conference on Hate Speech and Crime in Stockholm at the invitation of the CPS with the DPP, and subsequently set up the London Hate Crime Forum under the auspices of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Delegations were subsequently sent to Georgia, where evidence was given to the Georgia State Legislature in 2007, and meetings with a range of Canadian Government agencies in 2008. The delegations included, Bennett Obong, Peter Herbert, Cordell Pillay and Christopher Boothman.
In 2002 the then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith and the Solicitor General Harriet Harman formed the Attorney General’s Race Advisory Committee as a direct result of a series of cases won by SBL members Marieh Bamieh and Neeta Amin against the Crown Prosecution Service. These two women led, campaigned, and organised the initiative to force the CPS under the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir David Calvert-Smith to implement the changes recommended by race consultant Sylvia Denman. Between 2001 and 2003 the CPS were held to account about the promotion, retention and progression of BME staff at all levels. The task of combatting discrimination within the CPS received a major boost from the SBL ac campaign and led directly to the formation of the National Association of Black Crown Prosecutors. The careers of BME lawyers and paralegals in the CPS has progressed significantly since that time although much work still needs to be done.
With a threat of a Judicial Review the CLE backed down and reviewed the marks of many BME students who were ultimately passed. Sadly, Grace Higgins did not benefit from this review and tragically died the following year. Her legacy was to force the Bar course to be taught throughout the UK, to have many more BME students admitted as barristers and to open up the whole legal education for Bar students who came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Over the years SBL conducted talks at Universities, Bar School and at the Law Colleges. A survey of over 200 law students at Guildford Law College in 1994 found that BME students had to write approximately six times as many interviews as there white counterparts before getting an interview. The disparity of treatment was so stark one could identity the determining factor as being the length of the name if “foreign sounding”. Students with longer names, of either Nigerian or Sri Lankan origin clearly had the greatest difficulty in obtaining a training contract anywhere. Applicants with the same 2:1 degree had to write approximately 130 applications before obtaining an interview whilst their white counterparts only needed 30 applications. The racial disparity only disappeared when their degrees were from Oxford or Cambridge.
Rosemary Emodi, and more recently Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and Rebekah Isaacs, and many others in SBL organised and campaigned for the rights of BME law students to receive the proper access to education and career opportunities over the years. The major conference “Legal Futures” was held at Birbeck College and at City University in 2010 and 2011 to help give practical advice on interview techniques, confidence building. Joint seminars were held with City law firms such as Ashurst Morris to help BME students access the city experience, work placements and training contracts. SBL is currently working with the Urban Lawyers Group to address BME student needs in a conference and seminar setting.
In 1998, SBL attended the NBA annual conference in Memphis, Tennessee and visited the memorial to Dr Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel. Moved by that experience Peter Herbert and Errol Pitter drove the 800 miles to Washington DC and invited the then Deputy US Attorney General Eric Holder to attend a yet to be planned conference on Hate Crime in the UK. In a short, but memorable meeting held on the very morning the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi were blown up in terrorist attacks in August 1998 he agreed to come. He left our meeting to go and advise President Bill Clinton. On December 12th a substantial part of the whole US Department of Justice, the Washington Bureau Director of the FBI came to London and were royally hosted at the London Hilton hotel. Deputy Assistant Rose Ochi, a senior Japanese American lawyer led a large delegation of US lawyers, law enforcement officers and civil rights activists to meet and liaise with their UK counterparts in Government.
In a private meeting between the US Government and the Home Office she was asked why the DOJ had come to the UK at the invitation of a small NGO like the SBL, and she rubbed her skin and said, “this and justice”. The SBL throughout this period of the 1990’s was very often the legal arm for many campaigns within the African, Caribbean and Asian community working and sharing the stage with the National Black Caucus, Newham Monitoring Project and the Anti-Racist Alliance. The election of the Labour Government in 1997 led to a reduction in activism generally as many activists took up positions in the legal establishment. Many SBL members were successful in taking silk following the land break appointments of John Roberts Q.C. and Sigbat Kadri, the first two silks of colour appointed in 1988.
Members of SBL went on to hold full time Judicial office, Peter Herbert became Vice Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority in 2000, Nicola Williams was appointed a member for the Independent Police Complaints Commission, Makbool Javaid became partner in a city law firm and Christopher Boothman, was appointed Legal Director of the Office of Public Standards and the most senior black lawyer Patricia Scotland Q.C. became Britain’s first black woman Cabinet member when she was appointed Attorney General by the Labour Government.
Unfortunately SBL lost its funding in 2000 and the activity level dropped substantially, partly due to the career progression of senior members of SBL being committed to public office in a whole range of organisations that occurred in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Many BME lawyers successfully entered Parliament such as Sadiq Khan, (formerly of Christian Khan solicitors, who is at the time of this article Shadow Justice Secretary and prospective Mayoral candidate for London.
In 2009 the SBL held a major international criminal justice conference organised by Cordell Pillay, the Assistant General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers and held in partnership with the Association of Black Probation Officers. We were joined by the President of the National Bar Association and the conference was opened and supported by Patricia Scotland Q.C.. Justice links were presented to all speakers and panellists such as Rabinda Singh Q.C., Milton Grimes Esq, Doreen Lawrence O.B.E. and Sir Anthony Hooper Q.C. to mention just a few.
In recent years the SBL has enjoyed a revival celebrating its 40 th anniversary in 2013 at the offices of Fasken Martineau, one of the most diverse law firms based in Canada with offices in London. We also held seminars on Children in Conflict Zones and celebrated the life and times of our late patron Nelson Mandela with the South African High Commissioner. SBL continued its international role liaising regularly with the National Bar Association and attending their conferences in US cities each year. SBL has concentrated on specific campaigns or targeted activity given the limited resources. SBL currently supports the “Black Lives matters” campaign in the USA and liaise regularly with international organisations in the human rights field.
We had assistance from many quarters most notably form academic Professor Gus John and from grass roots football Chairs such as, Lincoln Moses and Wayne Henry from Birmingham and the late Trevor Hutton from AFC Wembley. The football establishment were particularly resistant to any non-sports intervention but they continue to be aware that sport and discrimination cannot co-exist and is too major a problem to assume those in sport can be left to put their own house in order. The “Rooney Rule” stil has not been implemented in European football despite all the talk of change, and many other initiatives continue to be debated within British football, which still has significant work to do as does the sport generally in Europe to clean up its act. The recent financial scandals and corruption within in FIFA clearly do not help the fight against discrimination of all sorts. SBL found that all too often those tasked with combatting racial discrimination became the well paid gatekeepers and apologists of the profession rather than its guardians.
In October 2013, SBL joined the NBA in London to host an international conference highlighting racial and other forms of unlawful discrimination in sport addressed by Baroness and other leading athletes. The SBL worked with the Jewish community organisations to highlight and report racial incidents within football grounds both at home and abroad. We are continuing to monitor the situation especially in the coming years when Russia will be hosting the 2020 World Cup.
SBL joined the Association of Muslim Lawyers in a mission supported by the Pakistani Medical Association to visit Lampedusa and Sicily in June over a four-day period. Within days of the tragedy the Sun Journalist had issued an article calling the migrants “cockroaches” and other derogatory terms. She repeated these vile comments on LBC Radio leading to the SBL and AML reporting her, her editor and the LBC radio owner to the Metropolitan Police and the International Criminal Court. Ms Hopkins was interviewed under caution but eventually no further action was taken either by the ICC or by the Metropolitan Police. Our work has however made it clear we will take action where journalists may seek to incite racial or religious hatred.
The SBL and AML mission was funded by Joseph Rowntree and by several law firms with a final report being published in December 2015 at the International Conference entitled, “The Refugee and Migrant Crisis- Do they have a future in Europe? The mission successfully led to meetings with the Mayor of Catania, Senator Enzo Bianco and a variety of NGO’s with presentations being made to the Mayor and to the Italian Ambassador in recognition of the work done to save refuges by the Sicilian population and by members of the Italian navy and coastguard under “Mare Nostrum”. In our the visits to the Mineo refugee centre and the railway station of Catania, and the small island of Lampedusa where 3,00 refugees were landed in a 24 hour period gave our twelve strong delegation a first hand understanding of the awful plight and suffering of refugees.
In September 2015 SBL and AML visited Calais and completed their mission interviewing a total of some 93 refugees. The findings, which are written in a report that is to be published in 10th December, will be used to engage with the European Commissioners, the African Union, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the various UK Government. Seeing the deplorable conditions of refugees and migrants our ten members distributed hundreds of parcels of essential toiletry items, hijabs. These were gratefully received with a long but tiring day for everyone.
This is a “living” website so any amendments or corrections are welcomed by the editorial team.
D Peter Herbert O.B.E.