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First non-white Old Bailey judge was told to ‘try hairdressing instead’

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Judge Anuja Ravindra Dhir QC also recalls being mistaken for a defendant when she was at the bar

An Old Bailey judge has admitted when she said she wanted to study at university, her teacher told her to “aim a little lower” and “try hairdressing instead”.

“Women were not encouraged to aim high,” the now Judge Anuja Ravindra Dhir QC recalls about her Scottish state school days. She continues: “My daughter, it would never cross her mind being treated differently because she’s a female or because she’s not white, whereas in my generation we did. We were surprised when people didn’t treat us differently.”

Dhir, 49, ignored her teacher’s hairdressing remarks and went on to study English and Scots law at Dundee University. She was called to the bar in 1989, took silk in 2010 and in 2012 became a circuit judge at Woolwich Crown Court. She now sits on the Old Bailey benches, and is both the youngest and the first non-white person to do so.

Judge Anuja Ravindra Dhir QC

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Dhir also admits she regularly experienced discrimination when she was practising as a criminal law barrister. The former 5 Paper Buildings advocate says:

When I came to the bar most of the bar was male, white, public school and they had some connection already with the profession. Now that’s four differences already before we start.

Dhir — who both prosecuted and defended during her time as a barrister — continues:

I remember going to a crown court out of London and the security, the man at the gate, didn’t believe I was a barrister and in the end I had to show him my wig and gown before they would actually let me into the building. And I got used to turning up at courts and people saying to me ‘Witness? — no — Defendant? — no’ and looking rather surprised when I said I was the advocate.

Dhir’s plight bears some resemblance to that of Harini Iyengar’s, an 11KBW tenant. She’s “fed up” with people questioning whether she (a non-white female) is a barrister. In March, Iyengar said she was stopped in Temple by a man and woman canvassing for the City of London elections. She told Legal Cheek:

[H]e asked me whether I was a barrister, I said yes, and then she found it difficult to believe that I really was. I explained that I was fed up of people doubting that I was a barrister, we discussed it politely, and she explained that she had been surprised and impressed that I actually was a real barrister.

In reply to Iyengar’s candid confession, Leisha Bond, a divorce specialist at St Phillips Chambers, said she too is used to being told she doesn’t look like a barrister. Sometimes, people even think she’s a receptionist:

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