Barrister mistaken for defendant three times calls for anti-racism training
A barrister has called for the introduction of anti-racism training in the legal profession after being mistaken for a defendant three times in one day.
Alexandra Wilson, 25, who is also the author of ‘In Black and White’ which examines racism in the UK court system, tweeted last Wednesday about her ‘exhausting’ experience of discrimination as a black barrister.
In just one day, she was stopped by a security guard who couldn’t find her name on the defendant’s list. Once inside the courtroom, a legal professional then told her to wait outside and see the usher about her case.
She was then later shouted at by a clerk who told her to leave the courtroom and wait for her case to begin. She was also mistaken for a journalist by a member of the public, who had told her not to go into the courtroom.
Speaking to Metro.co.uk, Ms Wilson said that there was a wrongful assumption racism had been manifested by overt brutality like the murder of George Floyd in the US.
In reality, she said there was a ‘much bigger problem’ of ‘underlying assumptions’ about black people.
She went on: ‘The issue is not so much being wrongly thought to be a defendant, journalist or member of the public.
‘It’s the underlying assumptions that underpin it. That “all mixed-race people look the same” or “black people must be coming to court because they’re in trouble with the law”.’
She added: ‘It’s easy to think, “I’m not racist because I don’t use racial slurs” or “I would never intentionally say anything hateful to someone about their race”.
‘But racism doesn’t stop there. Racism is making assumptions about people because of the way they look.’
Ms Wilson’s own journey into the legal profession, which has been criticised as being a bastion for white, middle-class, privately educated white men, was inspired by the tragic murder of her friend Ayo when she was 17.
She criticised current racial bias training as tokenistic, saying: ‘The training that does take place needs to be actively anti-racist, as opposed to promoting equality and diversity which should be a bare minimum.’
Ms Wilson’s tweets went viral, triggering a wave of responses from other fellow black and ethnic minority legal professionals. She also received an apology from acting chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, Kevin Sadler, who will be investigating a formal complaint she made.
Barrister and co-founder of the Black Barristers Network, Natasha Shotunde, stated that micro-aggressions, patronising and belittling comments were commonplace for black barristers.
She said: ‘In the media, we are only portrayed as criminals, or if we’re lucky, singers or athletes. Black intellect isn’t something that is recognised or acknowledged, and that feeds into our professions.’
Describing her own early experiences of racial discrimination at an advocacy weekend with a retired judge, she added: ‘He turned to me and asked me whether I was going to go back to my country to practice when really, I was born and raised in Tottenham.’
At all levels of the legal profession, from the appointment of QC’s to the progression of law students from ethnic minority backgrounds, there has been criticism about the lack of diversity.
A report from the Bar Standards Board published last year showed ethnic minority students were almost twice as less likely to get a pupillage than white students with similar levels of academic attainment.
Ms Shotunde highlighted 1.1% of QC’s are from a black/black British ethnic group, which compares to around 3.7% of the UK working age population. Issues around the retention of barristers, particular of ethnic minority barristers, has also been widely reported.
‘It’s not just about me, about this particular incidence in the court-room’, Ms Wilson added. ‘It’s about the wider impact this might have on people. It’s things like this that might indicate why people are not staying in the profession.’
Defence barrister Abimbola Johnson said Ms Wilson’s experience was a reflection of a much wider issue of systemic racism. She said: ‘The prejudices we see reflected in the system are reflective of the prejudice we see in our day-to-day lives.’
‘What Wilson experienced is in many ways a symptom of the over-representation of black people in the criminal justice system which has been widely reported in the 1981 Scarman report and the 2017 David Lammy Review.
‘We need to start having honest conversations, looking at the systemic structures rather than expressing indignation about individual experiences.’