Do fewer lawyers and judges of colour mean more prisoners of colour?

When professionals within the criminal justice system cannot relate to the ordinary people that come before them, justice cannot be done.

Tunde Okewale
21 April 2017


In a profession built upon tradition and custom it is difficult to achieve the changes needed to diversify the legal system. Photo: Tunde Okewale.

Most of the people I grew up with are either dead or in prison. I was very fortunate, I grew up in a strict African family and my parents decided that I would become either a lawyer or a doctor. Personally, I had ambitions to become an athlete. My parents were strict but very supportive. Having someone supportive that pushes and helps you makes the difference between a life of crime and the life of a lawyer. Researchers Tucker and Presley, amongst others, found that positive expectations held by teachers and parents had an impact on whether or not students became successful.

Unfortunately, many people from poorer communities do not have the same support from their families, teachers or friends. Their plight is made worse by the public institutions they engage with reinforcing the negative, self-limiting beliefs from home. For example, they may only be encouraged to pursue low-skilled and low-paid jobs. This habitually takes the shape of teachers discouraging children from pursing certain careers and creating self-limiting beliefs. This subtle discouragement often shapes beliefs and impacts the way they interact and perceive themselves in the world around them.

I often encountered discouragement and bigotry, which was subtly and surreptitiously cloaked as concern by teachers and friends.

From my personal experience ethnic minorities and young people from poorer backgrounds have been, and are still, being "written-off” as low achievers; a point which the former education Secretary Nicky Morgan briefly alluded to in March 2015.

This was a reality for me growing up as I often encountered discouragement and bigotry, which was subtly and surreptitiously cloaked as concern by teachers and friends. Black and Minority Ethnic (or BME) and low-income communities are often confronted with this narrative and it easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may be exacerbated by a lack of diversity in education. According to the Policy Exchange Report ‘Bitter Sweet Success?’ the “minority presence” in the education profession is less felt when compared to other professions attaining only 8% of BME secondary school teachers.

A holistic view needs to be adopted when identifying the causes of and solutions to the over-representation of BME’s in the criminal justice system. I believe there is a link, correlative if not casual, between crime, education and unemployment. 

At present, people from black and ethnic minority groups make up over a quarter of prisoners in England and Wales, but only 14% of the wider population. Figures also show that 61% of offenders from black and ethnic minority backgrounds receive jail sentences, compared to 56% of white offenders for the same crime.

In early 2016 the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, reaffirmed the narrative by saying: “If you’re black, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university. And if you’re black, it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white.” Theresa May also said words to this effect in her first speech as prime-minister. The Lammy Review, alongside organisations like the Society of Black Lawyers, are seeking to explore the causes of this disparity and offer solutions. These attitudes undoubtedly contribute to the self-fulfilling prophecy of low achievement and apathy amongst disadvantaged groups in society. There are no black generals in our armed forces and just 4% of chief executives in the FTSE 100 are from ethnic minority backgrounds. There are only two Asian High Court Judges and there are none of African Caribbean origin after the resignation of Linda Dobbs who recently spoke about her experience of race discrimination as a barrister and as a Judge.

One of the biggest hurdles to achieving a truly diverse and inclusive justice system has been getting people to realise that creating a diverse legal profession is, in effect, all about change. This is inherently difficult to grasp, particularly in a profession that has been built on tradition and custom. Historically, there has been more resistance than acceptance of these changes. This has resulted in the creation of a number of associations, groups and committees.

I believe that the cause of over-representation in the criminal justice system of specific groups is due to under-representation and a lack of diversity of the people administering justice.

There remains an issue in relation to the progression of BME practitioners at the Bar, with only 6% of QCs declaring that they are BME (compared with 12% of the practising Bar) and 90% declaring that they are white. These figures are the same as they were in 2014.

Diversity in the law is imperative to improving the legal and government infrastructure in the UK. If a judge, barrister, solicitor or police officer cannot relate to the ordinary people who rely on them to provide justice, can justice really be just? This does not mean having token people in play for optical pleasure as it potentially may have a knock on effect on their democratic legitimacy. Those who feel unheard and unrepresented will not engage and participate with the democratic process. These people are likely to feel that the legal system does not operate to protect or promote their interests. This lack of engagement facilitates, or is at least complicit, in perpetuating the over-representation of those same disenfranchised groups in the criminal justice system. This, in turn, creates a reluctance on the part of BME communities to engage with the establishment and perform invaluable public services.

The legal system appears to be evolving somewhat. The Sentencing Council has published new guidelines for sentencing of children and young people which will be used as of 1 June 2017. One of the new requirements will be for judges to consider the over-representation of BME children in the youth justice system and to take into account particular factors, which arise in the case of children in this group.

I established Urban Lawyers, which aims to to make the law (in its academic, practical and career contexts), more accessible to marginalized groups in society. Other similar initiatives are emerging, particularly at universities. The University of Manchester have established Black Lawyers Matter, to address the under-representation of young black men studying law.

Although it is encouraging to see changes and initiatives, we still have a very long way to go before we will see a real impact on the lives of BME people in our communities.

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