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Britain’s first black female High Court judge opens up about racism at the bar

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Clerks would Tippex out her name on briefs and write in the name of male pupil they wanted to be the tenant

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The country’s first female ethnic minority lawyer to become a High Court judge has shared her story in a tell-all interview, and it makes for shocking viewing.

Dame Linda Dobbs has exposed shameful incidents of racism and sexism at the bar, particularly from her own clerks, in a revealing interview for the First 100 Years project — an ambitious video history which aims to highlight and celebrate the achievements of female lawyers in a profession long dominated by men. The extent of that domination is starkly revealed by the project’s timeline:

1919: Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act passed allowing women to enter legal profession.
1927: Edith Berthen joins firm as one of first women to qualify as a solicitor (Hill Dickinson).
1962: Elizabeth Lane appointed first female judge in the County Court.
1976: Female intake at the bar rises above 10% for first time.
2014: Sonya Leydecker first female CEO of leading law firm (Herbert Smith Freehills).
(for full list click here)

In the video the Sierra Leone born judge, and University of Surrey grad, recalls that attitudes to women in the profession were very different when she was called to the bar in 1981. One major hurdle for the now 65 year-old was the attitude of the many solicitors who did not want to instruct a woman, either because they, or, more likely, their client, considered them to be inferior.

She clearly remembers representing a male client on a drink driving charge, who made very clear that he did not want a female barrister. When he was — in her opinion — unjustly acquitted, he did not say thank you, but instead continued to scold his solicitor for instructing a woman.

But it was neither her solicitors nor her clients but her own clerks who placed the biggest obstacles in her path. She recalls they even went as far as to Tippex her name from briefs sent to her to ensure that work intended for her was instead given to a male rival for the tenancy.

Oddly, however, she would be booked to represent members from the extreme right-wing political party the National Front, who had been charged with throwing a brick through an Asian shopkeeper’s window. The clerk giving her the brief told her “just do an Al Jolson in reverse… get a bit of tennis white and do that to your face and they won’t know the difference.”

It’s hard to believe that overtly discriminatory behaviour like this was allowed to go on, but it wasn’t easy to challenge. Dobbs says:

It was difficult to complain about things in those days. There were no procedures. None of that was recorded, so to try and prove that, you know, you were discriminated against was very difficult indeed.

Despite all the hurdles and setbacks, Dobbs managed to make it to the top and became a High Court judge — an experience she described as “absolutely terrifying”. The only ethnic minority judge on the bench for a further seven years, Dobbs remembers feeling “lonely… not one of the chaps…like you don’t fit in.”

But has much changed? Judicial diversity stats have improved in recent years, but there’s still a lot to be done on the gender and ethnic diversity front. Dobbs realises this — and that’s why she has always had an open door policy when it comes to aspiring lawyers and law students that want to crack the profession. “For me it is all about unlocking potential,” she says.

Watch the interview in full below:

33 Comments

Anonymous

What an inspiration!

Good on her!

(61)(4)

Anonymous

Double tragedy. A female and black in a male dominated career. Though not a lawyer. I ve been there

(4)(6)

When I were a pupil

When I was criminal pupil, less than a year ago, I, every now and then, heard examples of female clients insisting on female counsel in the Mags.

(14)(14)

Anonymous

I specifically asked for a female barrister in my child contact case against my mental ex wife.

Call me a sexist.

(11)(5)

Anonymous

Sexist.

(13)(3)

Anonymous

Good on you.

(4)(2)

Anonymous

Surely a difference between refusing to instruct a man in a particular case and refusing to instruct men in general?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

To be honest she should now ‘name names’ and call out those folk that acted so badly.

This also shows quite clearly that the Bar and the Judiciary are considerably more racist and sexist than the Solicitors profession.

But we all knew that anyway…

(25)(15)

Anonymous

Because what was happening 35 years ago at the Bar wasn’t happening 35 years ago with solicitors? In any event one of the accusations is racist briefing by solicitors!

(20)(0)

Anonymous

“she should now ‘name names’ and call out those folk that acted so badly”

I happen to agree with you on this. But, let’s remember, when Charlotte Proudman did just that she was universally vilified – more on this website than anywhere else, but still universally – for having the temerity to do so. If people shy away from exposing the racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. in our society I can hardly blame them.

(9)(5)

Trumpenkrieg

The analogy is spurious. This Judge documents some pretty egregious instances of discrimination. Proudperson went public with what was little more than a tepid attempt at flirting as a ruse to give her profile a boost as wimmins rites campaigner in the media. She was vilified because the canny saw through her Schtick.

(11)(8)

Anonymous

Most individual acts of sexism/racism are perceived as harmless jokes in isolation.

(2)(6)

Anonymous

But Proudman heaped embarrasment on a man whose only sin was to pay her a compliment, and in a completely unthreatening and good-natured way at that. She may not have wanted the compliment, but her actions in response to a nothing incident were what got her condemned – by men and women.

The comparison between is wrong and, in my view, rather insulting to Linda Dobbs.

(8)(3)

Not Amused

This is exactly the sort of negative nostalgia which serves only to hurt and discourage young people entering the profession.

I don’t care how true it *was*. What matters is that people think of it as a truth which still *is* – and that is extremely harmful. So if ever current high court judge could STOP doing their own personal version of Monty Python’s Yorkshireman sketch then that would be super.

(15)(66)

wishing I had the luxury of not being amusing

Not amused you have no clue. I’m a black tenant, do you know how many times I’ve been asked to move by legal advisers, other counsel and court clerks in mags as I was ‘sitting in lawyers section, as defendant’s family sits over there’, my own clerk upon meeting me for 1st time telling me ‘positive discrimination was real’.

I’m not even talking about my racist clients charged with racially aggravated offences and solicitors thinking it looks good that they are defended by a black barrister as jury cant possibly convict him he can’t possibly be racist as represented by a black person.

Judges in crown court cases making off hand comments about me and colour of my skin, that us of course when they are not doing so invrelation to me being a woman. So yes young women need to know what profession they are entering, need to prepare themselves for the foolishness that will follow and know to develop a tough skin if you have ANY intention to succeed at the bar. I personally wouldn’t do anything else but I can’t critisize her for opening others’ eyes of how she found it.

(94)(6)

Anonymous

First does not mean top.

(4)(22)

Ann

I’m sure better than you, though. Can’t imagine why you’d make such a negative comment. Care to elaborate?

(5)(2)

Anonymous

Dad was a judge, she must have fought so hard…

(10)(24)

Anonymous

Her class got her through the door, that doesn’t mean she still can’t be subjected to other forms of discrimination…

(20)(1)

Anonymous

She’s complaining about sexism. She doesn’t mention race.

(3)(10)

Anonymous

uhhhh….yeah she did.

(14)(1)

Val

If you read it properly you will see the subliminal racist comments

(1)(1)

Just Anonymous

I disagree with NA. I consider it very healthy that individuals are able to share their experiences of genuine racism and sexism within the Bar. No-one is saying that these experiences necessarily reflect the Bar today. But the point is that if we can’t talk about them, we’re almost facilitating a return to the ‘bad old days’ where racism/sexism were things you swept under the carpet, which no-one could discuss.

Rather, by openly acknowledging and discussing these vile practices of the past, we’re showing young people that such practices are not acceptable now, and we’re hopefully encouraging anyone who still suffers from such practices to come forward and expose them to the full and disgusted glare of public scrutiny.

(49)(2)

Anonymous

She was appointed straight to the High Court bench without ever having sat as a part-time judge. Interesting treatment.

(7)(14)

Anonymous

She didn’t actually stay a judge very long. Why was that?

(1)(2)

Anonymous

In Magic Circle firms there are still virtually no black partners. But no-one talks about it.

(15)(2)

Joy Okoye

Linda Dobbs is one of the brightest legal brains of her time. She deserved her appointment as s High Court judge. Disturbing in today’s Bar that her undoubted legal accomplishments are being queried. Well done Linda for speaking up hopefully this will encourage others to strive for excellency & be determined to make it against the odds without losing their humanity. We are proud if you.

(18)(1)

Joy Okoye

Linda Dobbs earned her promotion to the High court bench on MERIT

(6)(1)

MT

Her experiences may be the past, but the people promoted by the system that doled out these experiences is dominated by those that system. Certainly makes sense of the challenges that my friends who are barristers have had finding chambers.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Gosh as a person who is white and not in the legal profession, I was absolutely taken aback with some of the insidously prejudiced comments in response to this inspirational black female judge. In 2016 racism seems to be a continuing stain on a profession that should be founded on impartiality and fairness. The posters should hang their heads in shame. Whilst Dame Hobbs family should be very proud of her achievements and dignity.

(8)(2)

Deed U No

I feel her pain
Perpetual Paralegal

(1)(0)

Anonymous

As the only Black Female at the time on the Bench I dared to say the “R” word and look what happened to me! Finally someone else saying it.

(1)(0)

D Peter Herbert O.BE. Chair of Society of Black Lawyers

Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose! At present three BME judges are experiencing racism, victimisation and bullying by the Ministry of Justice. In 1991 to 1995 al judges had training on race issues. All High Court Judges refused such training as they said they had no need of it!! Institional racism is alive and well within the Ministry of Justice. Many African, Asian and minority lawyers, Judges and Magistrates are currently watching what is happening. No progress was ever made without a struggle. These issues never disappeared but have just become more subtle. Congratulations to Linda Dobbs for speaking out. It is far easier to stay silent and let others suffer the unintended consequence of your acquiescence with injustice.

(3)(1)

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