Combating racism in the profession

It is time for the profession to be made accountable for any racism that exists among its members, argues Raj Joshi. Raj Joshi (a barrister with the CPS) will be a participant at The Letter and Spirit of the Law, an Anglo-US conference on race gate crimes at the Hilton Hotel, Park Lane on Saturday 12 December, organised by the Society of Black Lawyers and supported by The Lawyer.

As an immigrant growing up in London, I became aware of just how much of a reality discrimination was for a vast number of ethnic minority people (particularly Asian and black) people.

On the first day of secondary school, I remember being beaten up for being a “Paki”. I thought it wise not to remonstrate that I was, in fact, Indian.

The evidence submitted to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry only serves to further illustrate the wide gulf between white and black perception.

Like the police service, the legal profession needs to own-up to the fact that racism exists – but without the usual arguments ad nauseam over terminology.

A profession that is drawn from the community will inevitably reflect the widespread racist attitudes held in that community. In a Gallup survey in 1993, 25 per cent of Britons objected to living next door to a “non-white” person.

Furthermore, a social attitude survey in 1997 found that 45 per cent of white Britons admitted to being racist and, in a 1996 ICM survey of 1,000 white adults aged 18 and over, two thirds admitted to being racist and a majority favoured voluntary repatriation.

The starting point for any dialogue has to be a recognition of the differences in perception between Asian, black and white colleagues, and that of the community which they represent.

Acknowledging the discrimination suffered by Asian and black people in education, employment, housing and the law, will lead to a better understanding of why people say “they have a chip on their shoulder” or “play the race card”.

It will also go some way to explaining why employee complaints may be seen by some as a “poor management issue”, whereas some black colleagues view it as an example of “endemic institutional racism”.

Whatever our opinion of these differing views, they are a reality for those who hold them. The culture of the legal profession needs to be changed, without marginalising its ethnic minority or alienating the white majority.

We need to move on from race awareness to active anti-racist training and development of diversity appreciation, and that has to start with children at school and changes to the national curriculum.

Apart from a curry at the weekend or fish and chips, what else do we know about each others' different cultures, values and traditions?

We have made progress in putting race and equal opportunities issues on the agenda. We now need to move on. The same effective management methods we apply to a plethora of other topics, need to be applied to race.

Statistics collected regularly show obvious disparities in Asian and black representation at different levels of the legal profession and, now, the historical argument that “they need to come through the system” does not hold water.

We need to question why so few Asian or black people are on any of the numerous working groups, and why they do not get to be seen as the one of the public faces of the legal profession in literature, or as ambassadors.

Secondment from private practice to the public sector and vice versa, development opportunities for those starting out, and working groups which attract the best talent from the widest human resource pool available will enhance the image of the whole profession. It is here that openness and transparency can make the biggest difference rather than resorting to pushing the same chosen few into the limelight.

Access to, and sharing of, information through normal methods is a problem in any profession.

Networks help to provide mutual support, exchange ideas and promulgate good practice. Although sometimes viewed with suspicion and as being divisive, it is often the case that they reveal and confront outmoded ways of thinking and doing business and are useful in exposing weaknesses.

Ethnic minority group support networks and associations must be set up to bridge the gap between the perceived remoteness of lawyers and the community and within the profession itself, without being afraid that such groups are divisive.

We need to embark on a number of initiatives and not be tied by convention. Guidance and practices which were suitable years ago are no longer tenable.

Those practices must be challenged by monitoring, evaluating and benchmarking all areas relating to race and ethnicity.

The Bar's equality code provides practical illustrations of what chambers ought to be doing to ensure that there is no discrimination, and how this can be monitored. But how many sets of chambers have taken this on board and put systems in place?

Any initiative is pointless without monitoring and evaluation. Any monitoring and evaluation is pointless without accountability. How do we call ourselves to account on providing equality of opportunity? Have we got systems in place to highlight discriminatory service?

Any training carried out within the legal profession needs to be devised in consultation with local Asian and black communities so that they are provided with the service they require.

We need to develop training across the professions and criminal justice agencies to ensure consistency, commonality of approach and save on duplication of effort.

Future leaders need to be chosen on the basis of how well they understand diversity and demonstrate positive action on equality issues. We have to tap into the resources readily available within the legal profession, to reshape its culture and re-examine its values.

What the legal profession and the justice system lacks in colloquial parlance, is any street credibility, and while I agree that we need to change the culture at the top through the senior members of the professions, little will be achieved through exhortation without accountability.