Her Honour Judge Anuja Ravindra Dhir

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Today there is an article in the Guardian about the new judge at the Central Criminal Court. It says:

“The first non-white circuit judge to sit at the Old Bailey has revealed she was often mistaken for a defendant or witness when she first entered the [legal profession].

As she took up her new role, Anuja Ravindra Dhir said that when she began her career as a barrister just getting into courtrooms was a problem.

“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,” she said.

Once she was forced to produce her wig and gown before security allowed her in, Dhir said.

“Added to that, most clients did not want a young, Asian, Scottish female representing them, so that made it harder for me to build a client base.”

Now, a lot more defendants will be seeking Dhir’s favour as she dons the robes of a circuit judge at the Old Bailey to become the first non-white person – and the youngest – to fill the role.

The 49-year-old admits it has been a long road for the dyslexic schoolgirl from Dundee, who teachers advised to pursue a career in hairdressing.

Dhir told BBC News that when she was first called to the Bar in 1989, most barristers were white men, educated in public schools, who already had “some connection” to the profession.

“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,” she said.

“We were surprised when people didn’t treat us differently. Not now, but when I came to the bar, I was not expecting to be treated like a white Oxbridge male at all.

“I’m often asked if there is a glass ceiling. I think sometimes there are two ceilings – or no glass ceiling at all. There is one glass ceiling that’s in our minds, that’s what we think we can achieve, so perhaps we impose our glass ceiling and that has happened to me several times.”

Readers of these blogs will recall the speech I made at Gray’s Inn in early 1992, just after my three-year term as Chair of the Bar Council’s Race Relations Committee was finished, about our efforts to make the Bar a fairer place for the likes of Anuja Ravindra Dhir.

They will also have read my 1993 Kapila Lecture, perhaps the most influential piece I ever wrote, which provides a vivid reminder of the state of race relations in the courts at the time when she was starting to practise.

A few years later I mentioned this lecture to an audience of European judges when I explained:

In my lecture you will read a story I was told by Patricia Scotland[1]. 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.

At about the same time I was quoting another article from The Guardian in an address I gave to the senior judiciary on the same topic:

If we dismiss that as all happening a long time ago, listen to a very able Asian woman barrister[2], who often appears in front of me now in the Crown Office list, speaking to the Press this year about the way she built up her immigration law practice in the 1980s:

“I wouldn’t say it was all plain sailing. I wasn’t unaware that there were people at the Bar you have to prove yourself to. Clients are the least of your problems.   There is more of a problem with solicitors and other barristers.   It takes longer to obtain solicitors’ trust and confidence. You have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts. Discrimination works at that more subtle level.   It’s surprising, because you’d think you had the language skills and the cultural experience. Those skills and strengths are now acknowledged by the people I work for, which is an advantage, but it doesn’t make up for all the disadvantages.   Perhaps another reason why I’ve been able to break into the immigration field is that a lot of my work comes from law centres, which are much more willing to accept an Asian woman”.

It is sad that it has taken nearly 25 years before an Asian lawyer (and a woman, too) was appointed a full-time judge at the Old Bailey, but it is thrilling that I have seen this happen in my lifetime.

 

[1] She later became, as Baroness Scotland QC, Attorney-General, and later still Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

[2] Inderpahal Rahal. I was to quote this passage when I was invited to speak at the launch of a Trust Fund in her memory, following her tragic death at an early age. The purpose of the fund is to enable women from an immigrant or refugee background to further their legal education. I continue to support it, and it has just asked for applicants for the award(s) it hopes to make this year.

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