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

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By Katie King on

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


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: