Success in the face of adversity

Lincoln Crawford

Shaun Pye talks to the Trinidad immigrant who arrived in London with little more than the clothes on his back, but who undaunted went on to tackle discrimination at the Bar.

Lincoln Crawford's accent reveals a little bit of where he has come from and a lot about where he is going.

It is a unique mix of his native West Indian which switches every third or fourth word to – for want of a better description – Inner Temple posh.

He likes to think that a few weeks back in Trinidad would soon iron out the vocal tics, but was recently informed by his son that he was beyond redemption.

"He said it was too late – the Bar had corrupted me for good," sighs Crawford.

But, while the Bar may have rubbed off on Crawford, a lot of Crawford has rubbed off on the Bar. He has confronted the ugly side of racism in the heart of Britain's justice system. His election to the Bar Council in 1994 was one of the proudest moments of his life. He says: "I just put myself forward, without any backing from an association. I almost cried when I got the backing of so many of my peers."

He was the first black chairman of the Bar's race relations committee – and his whole life has been directed towards fighting prejudice.

He initially wanted to use the law as a weapon against injustice. When he became a barrister, he perceived injustice to be something that was much closer to home.

He explains: "As lawyers we're continually cross-examining employers in discrimination cases. Isn't it sheer hypocrisy to take these people to task when we ourselves practise discrimination?"

Crawford insists that he is not bitter about his treatment during his career and, sitting in his beautiful house by Regent's Park, it is not difficult to believe him. However, his rags-to-Regent's-Park-riches life story is one of struggle.

He grew up, uneducated, in a poor rural village in southern Trinidad. Aged 18, his grandmother pushed him into secretarial jobs (he says his shorthand is a bit rusty these days), which earned him enough money for a ticket on the SS France to Southampton. Previously, no member of his family had gone further than Port of Spain.

A friend had half-heartedly offered Crawford an invitation to visit him in London. He ended up living in a small flat for several months. It was so small, in fact, that he had to share a platonic bed with his less-than-delighted friend in Notting Hill.

Crawford then got a job working nights as a security guard.

"I remember walking all the way to Fulham Broadway, only to be told there was no job available. Then the foreman looked at my shoes, stuffed with paper and held together with nails and changed his mind. He also gave me a lift home," says Crawford.

He worked 6pm to 6am and started college at nine o'clock to study for O- and then A-levels, before going to Brunel University to read law.

Called to the Bar in 1977, he got a tenancy in 12 King's Bench Walk thanks to a professor at Brunel who was a good friend of head of chambers Lord Rawlinson.

Crawford is full of praise for Rawlinson as "a visionary who took steps to ensure that black and women barristers were taken into his chambers". Once he was in, though, he was on his own. But he built up his own contacts.

"I survived through sheer determination and the generosity of a number of white solicitors."

Twenty years on and he has developed a respected public law practice. Last year, he wrote a high-profile report on mental health policy.

There is little doubt who Crawford blames for discrimination at the Bar. "The clerks carry a great deal of responsibility. They are the group who have presented a lot of the problems," he says.

But discrimination is decreasing. He recalls the "dark days" when clerks would openly refuse to clerk a woman. And it was not until 1990 that race relations laws were even applied to the Bar.

This year, however, about 8 per cent of barristers are non-white, with 13 per cent of pupillages going to visible minorities.

Crawford emphasises the fact that there is a growing number of "enlightened" clerks, including Stephen Graham, chairman of the Institute of Barristers' Clerks.

He is effusive in his praise for the present Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine – a champion of ethnic minorities.

Despite Crawford's strong words, after 21 years he knows that the Bar does not take kindly to being shouted at. His approach as chair of the race relations committee is unashamedly softly, softly.

While his style does not suit all black lawyers – one complained that he was "a character not taken seriously by the establishment" – most salute his achievements. Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, says: "There's no point putting forward radical proposals if the Bar won't accept them."

So in a career marked last month with an OBE, is Crawford about to "corrupt" himself a little further by becoming Britain's first black judge?

His response is well rehearsed: "It's the ambition of every lawyer".

One senses he is not finished with the Bar yet.