Scarman, the patrician who won Brixton's trust, is dead

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The Independent Online

Lord Scarman, one of the country's most respected legal figures, who conducted the ground-breaking report into the 1981 Brixton riots, died yesterday at the age of 93.

Although Lord Scarman had a long legal career, it was the Brixton report for which he will be most remembered. Despite coming from a privileged background and having a patrician manner, he succeeded in winning the confidence of angry black communities with his report. He was welcomed back in Brixton many times afterwards.

He died in a nursing home in Kent and his nephew, George Ritchie, said: "He will be sadly, greatly missed. He died very peacefully, surrounded by friends and family." He is survived by his wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1947.

Lord Scarman first experienced the problems of earning the trust of divided communities when he chaired the 1969 tribunal set up to investigate civil disturbances in Northern Ireland; he rejected the theory that the troubles had been planned.

The next call came to hold an inquiry into the 1974 riot in Red Lion Square, London, after left and right-wing demonstrations over immigration rules led to a man's death. His report blamed the International Marxist Group for starting the violence with a deliberate attack on police.

As someone with an establishment background but with liberal views, and an expert on public order, he was seen by the Thatcher government as the man to walk a difficult tightrope: between poor black communities and a largely white police service, struggling to come to terms with a new social landscape and accused of racism and heavy-handedness.

The Brixton riots were the worst outbreak of the social unrest that tore apart inner cities in 1981, with successive waves in Toxteth, Handsworth, Bristol and other areas. Although part of the report concentrated on the causes and events of the Brixton disturbances, its recommendations had a much wider remit.

Although initially distrusted by black people, Lord Scarman won them over with his willingness to listen closely to grievances, particularly on social conditions, which he learnt about during several unpublicised trips to Brixton and other inner-city communities.

With hindsight, Scarman might have been too easy on the police, but at the time his criticism hit home: officers who "lacked imagination and flexibility" conducted "ill-considered, immature and racially prejudiced actions ... in their dealings on the streets with young black people". But, crucially, he concluded that "the direction and the policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist". It was left to the Macpherson report, 17 years later, to reach that conclusion.

He remained deeply involved with the inner cities for many years, founding a trust to help young people in deprived communities. Returning to the House of Lords, he earned a reputation as a "people's" judge with a series of rulings that came down on the side of ordinary people and common sense.


"If practices adopted by public bodies as well as private individuals are unwittingly discriminatory against black people, then this deserves serious consideration and, where proved, swift remedy."

"Racial disadvantage is a fact of current British life. It was, I am equally sure, a significant factor in the causation of the Brixton disorders..."

"The police cannot rest on the argument that since they are a cross-section of society some officers are bound to be racially prejudiced... the standards we apply to the police must be higher than the norms of behaviour prevalent in society as a whole."