Black History Month: We should inspire the next generation of lawyers

Greater London Authority deputy mayor for social integration, social mobility and community engagement Matthew Ryder QC explains why every lawyer should pay attention to Black History Month.

Matthew Ryder
Matthew Ryder QC

Every year, Black History Month provides a moment for all of us to reflect on the part that people of African and African-Caribbean heritage have played in the history of this country. Unfortunately, even after three decades, some still find the purpose of Black History Month difficult to understand. For lawyers its significance should be obvious.

That is because good lawyers understand the importance of history. It provides all-important context for everything from the application of precedent, to the development of legal principle and, as Lord Steyn famously said, ‘In law, context is everything’. More importantly, many great jurists – such as Lord Bingham – are avid students of history. Lawyers and historians share the skill of using a particular perspective or focus to form a jumbled set of random or forgotten events into a coherent and illuminating narrative. That powerful use of perspective and focus is exactly what Black History Month is all about.

“It can be particularly inspiring for young black lawyers, but that understanding is important to everyone.”

Contrary to what some people fear, the aim of Black History Month is not to repackage our established understanding of history exclusively for the benefit of black people. Its purpose is the opposite: to reveal forgotten or undervalued parts of British history, and in doing so explain our shared heritage in a way that is relevant to us all.

As a law student in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the rich history that underpinned English law. But as a British person of African-Caribbean heritage I was sometimes deflated and discouraged at how rarely black Britons seemed to feature as part of that history.

Taking a moment to understand the role of black Britons in our legal history – from Somerset’s Case in 1772 all the way to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report in 1999 – gives balance. It can be particularly inspiring for young black lawyers, but that understanding is important to everyone. It reminds us that our stories, like our modern lives, are not separate but intertwined. Our history is more varied and diverse than we are sometimes led to believe.

Last month, the Lammy Review confirmed a familiar picture of injustice and mistrust in the relationship between black communities and the criminal justice system. Its findings are important. But this month, Black History Month gives us an opportunity to present that relationship from a different perspective. We should, of course, recall with humility the injustices of racism that black Britons have faced – and continue to face – in British society. But we should also recognise, with admiration, the people of all ethnicities who have fought together to challenge those injustices and how our legal system has responded.

“The story of black people in our legal system is not just a story of immigrants, defendants and clients.”

We should remain concerned at the slow rate of progress in improving diversity in the legal profession and among the judiciary. But we should also take a moment to celebrate historical role models such as Baroness Patricia Scotland, who became the first black woman QC in 1991, before going on to become the first black person, and first woman, to be appointed Attorney General in 2007.

And Dame Linda Dobbs, who was the first black person to be appointed as a High Court judge in 2004. It is always worth remembering that the story of black people in our legal system is not just a story of immigrants, defendants and clients. It is also one of campaigners, activists, and advocates; QCs, prosecutors, Law Officers and judges.

Most of all, we should use Black History Month not as a moment of division or separation, but to inspire the next generation of lawyers by highlighting how all of us – including black Britons – have important stories to tell. Together, they contribute to our collective history.

Matthew Ryder QC is deputy mayor for social integration, social mobility and community engagement for the Greater London Authority.

This article is part of The Lawyer’s Black History Month coverage. If you would like to contribute your story, please email richard.simmons@thelawyer.com