No joy for Okoye at end of cautionary tale

John Malpas reports on the Court of Appeal's decision to strike out a black barrister's discrimination claims against her former chambers

IT WAS almost as if Lord Justice Gibson was waiting for an opportunity to put Joy Okoye in her place.

He pounced when she stood up in an attempt to intervene personally during her race discrimination appeal hearing last week at the Court of Appeal.

“Will you sit down,” he bellowed, bristling with anger.

He turned to her QC, Alan Tyrrell. “Will you impress on your client the fact that I will not accept her acting as a litigant in person when she is represented by two counsel.”

It was all too apparent throughout the three-hour hearing that the judge, and his colleague, Lord Justice Aldous, thought very little of her case – and all the more so because such a claim was being levelled by one barrister against former chambers' colleagues.

“The defendants in this case are professional persons. Some appear to have practices in areas where they deal with persons from racial minorities,” summed up Lord Gibson.

“They could be seriously prejudiced by allegations of racial discrimination. I find it all the more deplorable that these allegations, which appear to have no basis whatever, should be levelled by a member of the Bar against her former colleagues.”

Okoye was appealing against an earlier judge's decision to strike out her claim of racial discrimination. Her complaint stemmed from an incident which occurred in August 1994 when a firm of solicitors said it did not want to instruct her because she had an African-sounding name.

Okoye accused Brian Monument, one of the set's clerks, of collaborating with the firm by offering the brief to another less qualified member of chambers. The set told The Lawyer after the hearing that Monument has always denied this.

“It's very likely that some person was committing an unlawful act,” said Tyrrell during the hearing.

Lord Gibson agreed that it was “probable” that the solicitor was breaking the law, and “arguable” that Monument may also have done so.

But that allegation was time barred. Okoye's case rested on a series of further allegations.

She claimed Monument had plotted to divert a chambers meeting held to discuss her allegations of discrimination against the clerks by issuing a memo which revealed confidential information about her dealings with them.

The memo accused her of not paying her clerking fees and of “forcing” the clerks to return work outside chambers, against the terms of their contract with the tenants.

She said her fellow tenants had subjected her to “hostile, unwarranted and unjustified interrogation and humiliation” when they quizzed her about the clerks' memo. She also accused some tenants of failing to investigate her allegations of discrimination properly.

She singled out one of the senior tenants, Nicholas Nichol, who had issued a motion to expel her from the chambers in November 1994.

“The clerks' complaints against the plaintiff were in my judgment proper,” said Lord Gibson – before going on to vindicate the tenants' decision to question Okoye about the clerks' allegations.

“The tenant was in breach of her clerking agreement; it would have been hardly surprising if she was subjected to some strong questioning.”

As for her allegations against Nichol, the judge made a point of reading out a letter circulated to members of the chambers by Okoye which, he said, had prompted Nichol's motion to expel her.

It said chambers was being run by a “white clan” and adds, “the spectacle at chambers' meetings reminded me of Boers gathering against a black attack when really the blacks had come to talk and resolve issues.” The judge said the memo was “unacceptable and unbecoming a barrister”.

Okoye's two-year campaign to prove that her old chambers subjected her to a campaign of victimisation is in tatters. And, if they did not already know it, any barristers considering an allegation of discrimination against their colleagues will know it now: they had better have a strong case, or risk a very public dressing down by the senior judiciary.