I’m the black barrister who was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day. My story is the tip of the iceberg

The fact that other black people in my profession weren’t surprised by my experience after I shared it on Twitter last week highlights how much of a systemic issue this is

Alexandra Wilson
Tuesday 29 September 2020 17:27 BST

Last week I tweeted about my experience of being mistaken for a defendant three times in one day. I spoke out about the personal impact that these assumptions had on me. I felt exhausted. I was shouted at, ordered to leave the courtroom and treated dismissively multiple times. It was humiliating and no one, defendant or barrister, should be treated like this. 

My experience led me to reflect on how the criminal justice system treats defendants. I have seen first hand how terrifying the court experience is for people. Many of my clients are in court for the first time and it can be very daunting. For many, their liberty is at stake. The added pressure of being shouted at or treated dismissively must only heighten people’s nerves.

Those incidents also led me to think a lot about why I had been singled out so many times. I had been dressed similarly to every other barrister and solicitor there. It was the Magistrates’ Court and so we don’t wear our wigs and gowns – but I was wearing a black suit with black shoes and I was carrying my laptop. That day, people looked past the obvious signs that I might be there to represent a client and assumed that someone who looked like me was unlikely to be a barrister.  

Every other legal representative that day was white. Some were fairly young (as is typical in a Magistrates’ Court) and there were a mix of men and women. The other legal representatives were entering and leaving the courtroom without challenge. No one else was ordered to leave the courtroom and no one else was spoken to in a dismissive way. The only thing that set me apart was the colour of my skin. Unfortunately, this experience links to much wider issues of racism in society that need to be confronted.  

The assumptions made that day highlighted ingrained racial bias in the system, which may partly stem from the disproportionate criminalisation of black people in the UK. Black people continue to be over policed, with the rate of stop and search for black people being 38 per 1,000 people compared to just 4 per 1,000 for white people. A study published by the government also concludes that “black and minority ethnic offenders (particularly male offenders) were more likely to be sentenced to prison than White offenders (particularly white female offenders), under similar criminal circumstances”.

Many of the black barristers I know have had similar experiences in court, from junior barristers to QCs, the most senior barristers. The assumptions made about us further illustrate that we are not yet properly represented at the Bar, particularly at the senior end. The statistics show that only 1.1 per cent of QCs are black, despite the black working population being estimated to be approximately 3.7 per cent. The fact that other black barristers were not surprised by my experience highlights how much of a systemic issue this is. There needs to be change. All court staff, barristers, solicitors and anyone else working in the justice system should have compulsory anti-racist training that goes further than current equality and diversity guidance. Training is rarely nuanced and all minority experiences are grouped into a single “Bame” experience, rather than dealing with racism that affects specific groups, such as black people. Those working in courts need to understand systemic racism and how harmful it can be, particularly for black defendants. Every single person working in the justice system needs to ensure that they are actively addressing racial discrimination as well as addressing their personal bias.

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