Bar accused of 'deep-seated' race prejudice

A PROMINENT black lawyer yesterday accused the Bar Council of insidious and deep-seated racism at an industrial tribunal that has made legal history.

Peter Herbert, 37, a member of the Bar's race relations committee and vice-chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, is claiming he was the victim of racial discrimination when he was given an informal warning by the Bar Council's professional conduct committee for putting 'improper pressure' on a white QC.

It was the first case in which a barrister had been disciplined on the general management committee's 'own motion' and Mr Herbert is demanding an apology, retraction and compensation for the censure which he believes could harm his career.

The Bar Council took the action in August last year after Mr Herbert wrote to David Pannick QC, warning he could face a conflict of interest if he represented the Council for Legal Education in a proposed investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into alleged discrimination towards black students at the Bar School. Mr Pannick had previously represented the CRE.

Yesterday, Mr Herbert claimed that Mr Pannick had taken exception to it because it came from a black lawyer, representing a black organisation, who had 'dared to question a senior white lawyer'.

The professional conduct committee had also decided to take unreasonably harsh disciplinary action against him because he was seen as a 'troublemaker' and was supporting the black Bar School students in their allegations of discrimination. It had never had any genuine belief that he had sought to persuade Mr Pannick to breach the cab-rank rule, which requires barristers to accept instructions if they are free to do so, Mr Herbert claimed.

He told the London North Tribunal, on its second day, that the professional conduct committee would 'turn somersaults' to investigate complaints about barristers from white judges, but dragged its feet when they came from black people.

In a series of exchanges, Patrick Elias QC, for the Bar Council, accused Mr Herbert of failing to answer questions and making obnoxious and disgraceful allegations.

Mr Herbert retorted that it would naturally be perceived as obnoxious for a black barrister to criticise the Bar Council. In his turn, he accused Mr Elias of being patronising and asking loaded questions. 'It is fundamentally undermining to be the butt of criticism as offensive and discriminatory as this has been,' he said.

The attitude of the legal establishment was that black lawyers brought the profession into disrepute, he said. 'The Bar has never really given credit to black lawyers . . . We are seen as a problem.'

The tribunal will resume in February.

(Photograph omitted)