A black and white case

What is the role of a black lawyer? It's a question that Courtenay Griffiths, defence counsel in the Damilola Taylor case, has had cause to give plenty of thought to. Robert Verkaik interviews him
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The Independent Online

Whenever a black face was caught up in trouble in Coventry city centre in the early 1970s, the local constabulary came calling on the Griffiths home. Side-stepping the legal formality of a search warrant, the police would kick down the front door and drag out as many of the eight young black men who lived there as they could find.

Courtenay Griffiths, the second-youngest of the family, remembers his brothers being marched to the police station on spurious charges: "When my old man asked, 'Where's your warrant?', the reply came back: 'Which fucking warrant, you black bastard?' Then they knocked him out the way and went upstairs to get my brothers." As Courtenay grew up, he found himself the target of prejudicial policing: "I can recall being slapped about in a police box in the middle of Coventry City precinct."

Last week, Mr Griffiths sat in the front rows of court 12 at the Old Bailey, as a jury unanimously acquitted the two remaining defendants in the murder trial of Damilola Taylor. One of the defendant brothers was represented by Mr Griffiths, whose cross-examination of the police and their key 14-year-old witness exposed serious flaws in the prosecution's evidence. It was his theory of the case that raised concerns about the political nature of the prosecution, in the aftermath of the failures of the investigation of Stephen Lawrence's death.

Mr Griffiths understands the problems faced by young men growing up in black ghettos in the inner cities, and their hostility toward the police. Before embarking on a legal career, Mr Griffiths worked with black children from troubled backgrounds by organising youth conferences across the country. He wanted to help children to overcome the sort of prejudice that had blighted his childhood. That was partly why he vowed never to prosecute. "Having been the victim of police prejudice, I didn't want to be in the position where I was prosecuting the very same people," he says.

His early experience at the Bar reinforced his concerns about racism in the criminal justice system. In the early Eighties, taking his first steps as a courtroom advocate, he remembers ushers mistakenly showing him to the dock. On one occasion, he overheard two barristers describing witnesses and defendants as "coons".

But he says the Bar has come a long way in a short time. Having appeared in every major crown court centre in the UK, he has been an eyewitness to the changes. This year, he was appointed the first black barrister to chair the Bar's public-affairs committee. Some talk of him becoming the first black barrister to challenge for the leadership of the profession. He concedes that a black face representing the Bar is something the senior ranks of the profession would have been unwilling to countenance five years ago.

Courtenay Griffiths was born in Jamaica in 1955 and joined his father in Britain four years later. The family based itself in Coventry, where Griffiths' father worked as a carpenter. Courtenay won a scholarship to a local independent school, where he passed 12 O-levels and three A-levels. He applied to Oxford but was rejected, and settled for the London School of Economics.

When he found a chambers willing to take him, he had to fund his pupillage by giving swimming lessons to children in Brixton. At the radical chambers of 2 Garden Court, the clerks had trouble securing enough quality work for an inexperienced black lawyer. He left to join Ken Livingstone at the Greater London Council, where he was legal assistant to Paul Boateng on the police committee support unit for three years.

Mr Griffiths had been contemplating a political career, but an incident at the GLC changed his mind. While he was working on the terms of a grant to an Irish group from Kilburn, the IRA carried out a terrorist attack. Pressure was brought to bear by the party leadership to cancel the initiative. "We had to scrap months of work and this group, which deserved the money, didn't get it. It was so cynical – it put me off politics."

The ascent of another barrister, Tony Blair, and New Labour has helped confirm this view. "I don't think New Labour have any substantive policies. I think they are too concerned with public opinion and their own image, and too dictatorial."

While he has managed to keep out of party politics, he says he is happy to break his vow of never prosecuting a black defendant. Last summer, he was involved in a debate with Darcus Howe, the black rights commentator, during the making of the BBC programme Slave Nation. Howe, who is also a barrister, told him that black lawyers should never prosecute nor sit as judges.

"The way I see it," says Mr Griffiths, "is that our presence has to be reflected at every level of this society. In a sense, his argument springs from an erroneous position that black people don't commit crime. Of course black people commit crime, and should be prosecuted. If they are to be prosecuted, what does the race of the prosecutor have to do with the merit of the cause?"

Mr Griffiths says the days when barristers could go to the Old Bailey and almost guarantee getting their client off because the judge was a "cantankerous old bastard" are gone. "Now they are killing us with their kindness. They bend over backwards to be fair. It's lethal for the defence barrister."

Despite those changes, to most people the Bar is still white and middle-class. In Brixton, Mr Griffiths' achievements are seen as special. But the recognition has its downside. He has had to stop shopping there because, every time he does, he is besieged by people asking for legal advice.

"One thing I stress to them," he says, "is that it's not as though I'm unique. When I look at some of my colleagues in the profession and think of the innate intelligence of some of those kids I associated with when I was growing up, I think, if you had the right schooling and the right kind of family upbringing you could be doing my job."