Two fine lawyers: (2) Courtenay Griffiths QC


Catherine Baksi’s interview with Courtenay Griffiths is a “must read” for anyone who wishes to understand how difficult it was for a black barrister to establish a practice at the Bar 30 years ago.

Courtenay came to England with the rest of his family in 1960, at the age of five. He was the second youngest in a family of nine, and they were joining his father who worked as a carpenter in building sites in Coventry. Overt racism was common in the West Midlands in those days, and against the background of the civil rights movement in the United States [1] and what his father told him about Norman Manley’s career as a QC in Jamaica Courtenay set his heart on becoming a barrister at the early age of 11.

He passed the eleven plus, and went to Bablake School, then a direct grant grammar school, where he was the only black pupil: there was also only one Asian boy there, too.  He obtained a place at Worcester College, Oxford to read history, but turned it down in favour of reading law as an undergraduate degree course at LSE, a decision he later regretted.

Some of his childhood experiences brought back unhappy memories of that period:

“We were the biggest black family in Coventry, with a police force who were openly racist. Anytime anything happened in Coventry involving a black person they’d kick our door off and come in and haul my elder siblings out of bed, having pushed my father out of the way when he asked for their search warrant. You didn’t need a search warrant to search a nigger’s home in 1960s Coventry.”

When Courtenay read for the Bar in the late 1970s, local authority grants were still available for maintenance and tuition fees for the Bar Final training year: indeed, the Inns of Court School of Law, which at that time held a monopoly, deliberately curtailed its courses lest local authorities would no longer support them if it made them more expensive.

When he started to practise he says he experienced ‘subtle instances’ of racism rather than ‘overt’ racism.  When he appeared at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court in the days before the Crown Prosecution Service was created, he recalls being redirected from the advocates’ bench to the public gallery by the police inspector in charge of the court.   All-white juries at Leeds Crown Court used to gawp open-mouthed at the sight of a black man in a white wig:

“It didn’t square with their mind-set. I just didn’t fit their model of what a barrister should be”.

Courtenay was not alone. 15 years ago I referred to my Kapila Lecture in a talk to European judges and said:

“In my lecture you will read a story I was told by Patricia Scotland. When I knew her first, she was in her early thirties, building up a fine reputation for herself as a barrister specialising in family law. She is now a QC, a member of the House of Lords, and a Government minister. She used to tell me that although she went to school and university here, when she started to appear for her clients in magistrates’ courts, she could sense that some members of the bench treated her as someone who had just arrived from Bongo Bongo land and were very surprised when she addressed them in perfect English. Time after time she told me of the injustices she watched being done because English judges and lawyers and social workers simply did not understand the cultural dynamics of the family situation which was at the heart of a case in court.”

I would also tell the story of a black barrister who had been educated, I think, at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, who was told patronisingly by a circuit judge when he rose to open the prosecution case to the jury:

“Sit down please, Mr …. It is not your turn yet.”

The judge assumed that because he was black, he could only be appearing for the defence.

I first heard Courtenay speak towards the end of the Society of Black Lawyers’ conference at the University of Warwick which I have described in another blog.  It was towards the end of the conference.  Riots had taken place on the Broadwater Farm estate in North London in October 1985, and the tabloids were full of pictures centred round the killing of a police officer.  What Courtenay was talking about, however, was the conduct of the police that had led up to the riots.   It was a brilliant, sustained piece of advocacy, and it inspired me to do much more to study the relationships between our black communities and the police, of which Lord Scarman, one of my heroes, had written so eloquently in his 1981 report on the Brixton Riots. This reading, in turn, underpinned a lot of the work I did in teaching judges and magistrates five years later about the realities of the multi-cultural society.

For instance, I would talk to judges about the widespread perception among many black people that the courts were racist in these terms:

“What are the causes of this perception?   Most of them arise from factors quite outside our control, as we all know, although I regularly have to explain this to people who do not understand what our job as judges involves. For example, if those in charge of police forces are unable to eliminate conscious or unconscious racism among police officers, so that young black and Asian citizens can see they are receiving differential treatment compared with their white contemporaries, there is not much we can do about this as judges except to be sensitive to the possibility that differential treatment has occurred when relevant issues arise in cases we are trying. In the same way, an experienced recorder pointed out at a seminar last September that if a defendant kept in custody before trial has regularly been addressed by prison officers in derogatory racist terms, this is bound to colour his perceptions of the criminal justice system as a whole when he comes up the stairs from the cells into the dock.”

I have no doubt that this single talk by Courtenay was a powerful influence for me in all the work I was to do in the race relations field up to the end of 1994. I also read a report of a talk he made at a Howard League conference in which he talked about the “black stranger” syndrome.   I came back to this theme when I would warn magistrates not to be influenced by the appearance of a large 6 foot tall 16-year old black youth in the dock. I said he was probably extremely frightened of them, but did not like to show it.

When I became Chairman of the Bar’s Race Relations Committee in 1991, I invited Courtenay to join us, but he was the only one of my invitees to say “no”.   I believed at the time that he was understandably wary of an establishment committee chaired by an unknown High Court judge: he told me later that he was just too busy. I have always been sorry that I did not get to know him better in those days, because he could have taught me a lot more.

After that I watched his career go on from strength to strength. I don’t think he ever appeared before me when I was a judge. I did not sit often in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal, and the heavy criminal trials I conducted at first instance were always a long way from London. But I was aware of his growing reputation. He took silk in 1998 when he was 43 (a year younger than I had been 17 years earlier) and he has seldom been outside the public eye since then. For a time he chaired the Bar’s Race Relations Committee, and he sits as a Crown Court recorder from time to time.

In my days on the Race Relations Committee the Bar would fund a black student from an Access course at South Bank Polytechnic to spend some time in the United States, observing in a mini-pupillage capacity a black role model who had succeeded in the legal profession there (whether as lawyer or judge).  Now, thank goodness, we have plenty of suitable black role models over here, and Courtenay is one of their leaders.

Towards the end of Catherine Baksi’s piece she writes:

“He moves on to discuss another problem – the ‘feminisation of the bar’, particularly in publicly-funded work. Most of those from non-white backgrounds who are succeeding at the bar from non-white backgrounds are female,’ he asserts. This, he explains, is because ‘racism has historically impacted on black male and black females differently’. ‘The fear of black masculinity impacts in a completely different way to the white attitude to non-white femininity.’ And, he fears, the issues of colour and race, have been sidelined in favour of gender and socio-economic issues because people are less comfortable talking about race.

I am sure this is true.




[1] In 1959 arrangements were made for me to visit a black university in Atlanta, Georgia. I noted in my diary that I was told during my very interesting visit:

“Integration must come: we are going to have our rights.”

That evening I reported on my experiences over dinner to the senior partner of my liberal host’s long-established law firm. I wrote:

“Both he and his wife, brought up in Atlanta, are ardently opposed to any form of integration. Miscegenation and a lowering of educational standards are the main expressed fears; but, most of all, it stems from emotion. And no amount of talking to ardent integrationists will hide the fact that much of the South is opposed to integration for emotional, irrational reasons which no amount of cogent reasoning will sway.”

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