After more than a year of silence, Kamlesh Bahl has decided to speak out. The former vice-president of the Law Society, who became embroiled in the most high-profile discrimination case of recent years, is not going to let this one lie.
“For the first time in my life I see how people could have justified slavery, how right-minded liberal people distanced themselves, and I could see how you could have regarded someone as sub human,” she says of her ordeal.
In July, a tribunal found that she had suffered race and sex discrimination at the hands of Robert Sayer, the then president, and former secretary general Jane Betts. Further claims of unfair dismissal and victimisation were rejected.
Bahl says: “What this has taught me is that racism is not just confined to football thugs. There are champagne-sipping racists and the legal profession has more than its fair share of them. They try and stop the progress of those who are not like them.”
She is preparing her own appeal, as the Law Society itself does a U-turn on its original stated intention not to appeal and starts gearing up for the second court battle of this messy conflict.
Having been warned by Fox Williams, acting on behalf of the Law Society, that she would be liable to contempt of court proceedings if she talked about the appeal, Bahl cannot give details apart from to say that it concerns the victimisation claim.
The tribunal judgment came as a seismic shock to the legal community, and even Bahl admits that she was surprised. So why not leave the battlefield after scoring what Bahl calls a “tremendous victory?” “When the judgment came out the message I gave was let’s all reflect – I didn’t take any particular joy or leap up and down because of the judgment. It was something I felt I had to do to clear my name,” says Bahl. “What I actually got from the Law Society was that it once again went into ‘attack the victim’ mode. It went on about my conduct in the tribunal and how [the judgment] did not reflect too well on all the parties.”
Bahl says that the society had a choice of either coming to terms with being a racist and sexist organisation and then putting energy and effort into addressing the issue, or sticking its head in the sand and pretending that it never happened. It opted for the latter.
Unsurprisingly, the Law Society chose to emphasise the finding that Bahl had lied to the tribunal about whether she had talked to The Times about her initial suspension from the organisation, which followed claims of bullying against her. Bahl will not comment on that finding, claiming that all will become clear during the appeal.
This may be so, but Bahl seems to evade all of the awkward questions in this interview by using the threat of being found in contempt of court or by misinterpreting them.
For example, on the question of whether with hindsight she would have changed anything in the way that she dealt with people, given that the Law Society was previously quite a sheltered organisation unused to changes of the sort Bahl was proposing, she misinterprets the question. She answers as though it is a question about policy, saying that she would have brought in a new chief executive immediately, who would take the programme of change forward. I meant it to mean: does she recognise that she could be a bully?, but by the time she has dodged the question, the interview has moved on.
An investigation by Lord Griffiths into the bullying allegations preceded the tribunal and found that Bahl’s “treatment of staff was at times demeaning and humiliating and at other times offensively aggressive”. But Bahl questions whether the investigation was truly independent – Griffiths was invited to carry out the investigation by the Law Society, was paid by the Law Society, and also indemnified the Law Society. She also questions why she was not given a right to reply before the report was released, and why the inquiry did not examine the issues of race and sex discrimination in the way that she was treated by the society.
Despite reassurances that her legal costs incurred during the inquiry would be met by the Law Society, she claims that she did not receive payment until after the matter came up in the tribunal.
She is demanding that the Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and the Master of the Rolls should conduct an independent inquiry into both the Griffiths report and discrimination within the Law Society in general.
“If it is left to the Law Society they will do as they always do, sweep it under the carpet, do a superficial assessment of what has gone on and then do absolutely nothing. I think if this Government, the Lord Chancellor and the Master of the Rolls, who has visitorial responsibility for the Law Society, are interested in making sure that the solicitors profession is open to all, it must take [on board] of the biggest cases ever in legal history of racism and they must act. The failure to act, I think, sends out a signal that they are not interested in equality of opportunity in this country.”
As for how much the tribunal claim has cost her, Bahl claims not to know, as they are still doing the sums. Reports have estimated a figure of around £500,000, but Bahl will not comment on whether they are accurate. “It cost us a hell of a lot of money, more really than anyone would ever contemplate spending,” she admits, adding that it has been financed through savings, a second mortgage of her home, loans, borrowing money from her family and donations from the community.
As a result of her experiences, she strongly believes that tribunals should become a lawyer-free zone, arguing that once one side brings in lawyers the other side has no choice but to do the same. “Lawyers make such a meal over everything they do with technical points and points of procedures, but the tribunal was intended to be a quick sharp way of resolving employment disputes,” she says.
Bahl switched lawyers halfway through her preparations for the case, from Jill Andrew at Archon (formerly Langley & Co) to Sadiq Khan at Christian Fisher. She says that this was done because there was a likelihood that Andrew would be called to give evidence. Andrew says that professional obligation means that she cannot comment. In the event, she was not called to give evidence at the tribunal.
Despite the escalating costs, Bahl says that she feels a spiritual calling to keep fighting. “I believe that it’s my destiny to fight this case,” she smiles, clasping her hands together between the knees of her navy blue suit. “I have been so harassed, so bullied, so abused in the past three years that the fear I had is gone, the only thing I now fear is God.”
When she started her fight, a friend gave her a copy of the principal Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, which is written in the context of a big battle of good and evil. Opening the book at times of stress, Bahl says she felt as if it had been written especially for her at that stage in her life.
While talkative and charming, she also has the tired look of someone building themselves up again after a trying period.
She says that the toil on her health and sanity has been tremendous. “I have been depressed and on medication,” she says. “I had lots of taboos about going to see psychiatrists and was worried how it would look, but now I have a lot of admiration for them and the support they have given me.” Bahl now sees a psychotherapist weekly, and sometimes you can see the influence in the terms she uses: “abuse”, “discarded” and so on. Given her initial misgivings about psychiatrists, it is ironic that Bahl recorded an interview with Professor Anthony Clare for the Radio 4 series In the Psychiatrist’s Chair.
The programme, which portrayed Bahl as having struggled with rejection and discrimination all her life, was recorded, she says, at a time when she felt her side of the story was not being heard, and was broadcast days before the tribunal started.
“I would have interviews lined up with major newspapers and at the last minute they would not do them,” she says. “The whole of the case had been run in the media, what hadn’t appeared was my side of the story. That’s why I did [the programme]. Afterwards, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my mind.”
Presumably it was only one huge weight among dozens of similar loads that will be there for a long time to come.
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