Law: They said I was dirty

Lawyer Imran Khan gives his first full interview since the Lawrence inquiry. By Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online
You remind me of the book, Ten Little Nigger Boys," said the teacher to the young Imran Khan and his black friends as they sat in a row on the classroom heater. The insult was a defining moment for the young Khan during a schooling where racism was so pervasive that it was the single- most important factor in determining his chosen career.

Putting aside his parents' wishes that he become a doctor, he decided to try and fight the injustices he saw all around him. As one of the few black pupils at Lister comprehensive school in Plaistow, east London, Khan's studying was constantly interrupted by the threat of racist bullying from other children and negative stereotyping by some of the staff.

"The thing I remember about school was racism," he says. "It was the time of Paki-bashing and east London in the Seventies and Eighties was an incredibly horrible atmosphere to be living in." But the Paki-bashers could not drive him out of the East End and from an office, barely a mile from his old school, he has masterminded a campaign to transform the history of British race relations.

Last week, the legal profession recognised the achievement of the man who represented the family of murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, by voting him Legal Personality of the Year in The Lawyer Awards. Khan, 34, sees the honour as a tribute not just to himself but the extended family of legal colleagues, community organisations and individuals who have helped the Lawrences keep the campaign alive for six years.

"I don't think people appreciate what we went through. It was really tough. The Met wasn't going to let go easily and they really had a go at me in particular, trying to make out that I was politically motivated, that I had a hidden agenda and that somehow being an anti-racist lawyer was dirty."

Such smears are nothing new to Mr Khan, who has in the past suffered from whispered insinuation from members of his own profession.

"When I started up, the perception was a particularly bad one about how Asian lawyers practised. Somehow they were supposed to be crooked. They got their degrees from somewhere else. They didn't have the expertise or wherewithal to be in the profession, which was considered to be white and middle-class and to some extent, still is," he says.

His new profile, he hopes, will help to change this. Born in Pakistan, he was only four when he came to England, where his parents believed he would receive "the best education in the world." His father worked first as a London bus conductor and then in the Ford factory, all the while urging his son to pursue a career in medicine.

Instead, Imran joined the anti-racist movement, taking a post with the east London-based Newham Monitoring Project, and building up the extensive network of contacts from which he now draws as a lawyer and which led to his involvement in the Lawrence case.

At the same time he studied law at the former North-East London Polytechnic. After graduation, he became a trainee at the leading London human rights law firm, Birnbergs.

Its founder, Benedict Birnberg, became Khan's inspiration: "He has continued fighting. Most people working on miscarriages of justice cases tend to give up because they receive so many knockbacks. But people like Benedict have been going 30 years."

Khan embraced Birnberg's philosophy. "It's not just about what you can achieve for yourself, but what you can do for the community you live in. This profession is a really privileged one. You can so easily get sucked into the money making and the easy living." He believes there is a basic conservatism at the heart of the profession which inhibits progressive reform."The law should be an instrument of change," he insists. "Whilst it gives the boundaries, it also has to have the ability to change society for the good."

"There's a sense that our English legal system is the best in the world, even my parents told me that. But there is also an inability to change because there is a colonial view that it's the best because it has been taken up by so many other people, so there can't be any problems. Yet it has been exposed time and time again."

Based at JR Jones in Stratford Broadway, Mr Khan has been involved in several high profile cases other than Lawrence, most notably representing the family of murdered doctor Joan Francisco, and the two Asian youths accused of the 1994 murder of white London teenager, Richard Everitt.

His persistence in taking on the establishment was the key to his success in forcing the Lawrence case to a public inquiry, but he is so driven that some have been led to question his motives. "We have got to get away from the view that simply because you fight hard for your clients you are somehow bent," says Khan. "I get that all the time from police officers. They have got to understand the reason we do this work is that we care about it."

Sir William Macpherson's inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's death forced the admission from the Metropolitan police that it was "institutionally racist" but Mr Khan remains fearful that many of the inquiry report's 70 recommendations will never be implemented. Mr Khan is "really disappointed" with the reaction to the report of Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. "The message from the Government has got to be that this will improve the whole of society. But who is going to take the lead on that, apart from Jack Straw?"

The Lawrences, said Mr Khan, were now "incredibly tired" after years of trying to drive home the lessons of Stephen's death. "But they feel they have to continue, in order to ensure that the message remains high up the agenda."

Stephen's father Neville acknowledges that the case would never have gained such a profile without the efforts of their slightly-built, bearded and bespectacled lawyer.

"If only there were more solicitors like Imran," he says.