Wilson’s determination to understand the wider causes led her to start attending trials. What struck her most, as a teenager of mixed heritage, was that the legal system wasn’t as diverse as the defendants who passed through it. “I was shocked at the number of black people in court, yet all the barristers and judges were white,” she says. “People like me were overrepresented on the wrong side of the law and white people were overrepresented on the right side.”
“I would say to my parents, ‘Why can no one else see this? Why is no one doing anything about it?’ My dad said, ‘It’s been this way for so long.’ He wasn’t surprised and that hurt me even more. For him it was normal. I thought, ‘Someone should do something.’ ”
Wilson went on to qualify as a barrister and, at 25, is now part of a busy criminal and family law practice. She has represented those facing theft, burglary and assault convictions, she has prosecuted and defended alleged sex offenders and those involved in domestic abuse cases. There have been the homeless clients, the alcoholics, the repeat offenders — and the 19-year-old defendant who was carrying a knife because, two years earlier, an attack by a gang had left him in intensive care. Now she has written a book, In Black and White, about her experiences in court and what that has taught her about the law.
The first big lesson was how to deal with the concept of defending those accused of horrendous crimes. When she had to represent a sex offender at his parole hearing, for example, she wondered how she would feel if, due to her hard work, he was released and then reoffended. On the day her anxiety disappeared. She felt it was her duty to represent his interests and to do her best.
“The key thing about our job is to make sure that the process is fair, it’s not about mind-reading or working out what happened, it’s about making sure everyone has a fair hearing. It’s a privilege to speak to the people charged and to be their voice on the most important day of their lives.”
Sitting in her chambers in Blackfriars in her wig, gown and collarette, Wilson exudes charm and confidence, but when she first started she worried that people would view her as the token pupil who had been taken on to boost the Bar’s diversity statistics. And she was right to be wary of people’s ingrained prejudices. She recalls one particular day in court when she was dressed smartly in a dress and blazer.
A courtroom usher approached her and said: “You must be the defendant? Follow me.” The only difference between her and the other barristers waiting around that day was the colour of her skin.
“It’s happened a few times,” Wilson says. “I’ve quite often been mistaken for a defendant. This would normally be in the magistrates’ court because in the Crown Court we have our wigs and gowns.” She has also been mistaken for a defendant’s mum on occasion.“People make mistakes, of course they do, but it’s the frequency with which it happens.
I’ve asked friends at the Bar, ‘Have you ever been mistaken for a defendant’s mum?’ ‘No, never,’ they say. ‘Or a defendant?’ ‘No.’ It’s then that you realise it’s disproportionate.”
Wilson is from Woodford, on the border of east London and Essex. Her mother is white British and her father is black British, both are teachers. “I grew up with a strong sense of being mixed-race because all my cousins are mixed-race too. We had our own identity and we were very sure of that. It was a very comfortable bubble.” But then she started school and soon realised she was in a minority. That sense stayed with her when she won a place at a local grammar school at 16 and then passed the Oxford entrance exam. “I got there and I was the only mixed-race person in my entire year group of more than 120 students. I remember that hitting me, and then thinking, ‘That’s not important, don’t get bogged down by that. You can be good whatever race you are.’ ”
Despite her immediate family’s pride, her career choice drew criticism from a handful of family members. “They had an issue with me contributing to a system that they felt wasn’t fair. My cousin [Ayo’s best friend] was one of the people asking questions.”
“How can you prosecute our brothers and sisters?” he once asked her. “Don’t you feel guilty putting another black person in prison?” But she feels that prosecuting people who commit crimes is as essential as defence work. Her case work requires her to see things from both sides, which has helped her in the wake of Ayo’s murder. “It was challenging to explain that,” she admits.
Wilson now offers her services to the UK’s Black Lives Matter movement on a pro bono basis, and she has given legal advice to protesters. Of George Floyd’s death, which galvanised the movement at home and abroad, she says: “I was absolutely devastated. All I kept thinking was that could have been someone in my family, that could have been my dad.”
Does she feel real change is coming? “I hope so, there’s more engagement than we’ve seen before,” she says.
“It’s important not to forget that Black Lives Matter hasn’t just popped up because of George Floyd. A lot of people in the black community, and some in the white, have been working on change for a while and it’s just that the rest of the world has woken up. I hope that there will be a real change and this won’t just be a moment.”
*Some names have been changed
WILSON’S TALES FROM THE LEGAL FRONT LINE: Extracted from In Black and White:
the 18-year-old caught with half a kilogram of cannabis
I was nervous for my first case in the Crown Court. I was representing Mr Ahmed, who was charged with possession of drugs with intent to supply (a large amount of cannabis). While I’d dealt with many drug cases in the magistrates’ court before, judges in the Crown Court have greater sentencing powers (they aren’t limited to a six-month custodial sentence per offence), and this weighed heavily on my mind. My client could face a substantial amount of time in prison and he was only 18 years old.
Rushing into the robing room to put on my wig and gown, I bumped into a senior barrister I knew. He and another barrister were discussing the judge we were all due to appear in front of that day. The senior barrister and I considered our chances of success in our cases based on what we had heard about the judge. We concluded that he was fair and balanced and whatever decision he reached would likely be the most appropriate, even if it was unfavourable to our respective clients.
The other barrister was delighted with our conclusions. He paused, took a breath and declared: “At least the racist judge has retired. I’ve got a black kid today, he would have had no hope. ”
I glanced at him, unsure how to react.
He added: “It’s a huge relief for black boys everywhere that he’s gone.”
I lowered my head and thought about what he’d said. It was true, I guess. If a “racist” judge had retired, that was brilliant for everyone, “black boys” particularly. But it worried me that it had been so normalised that there were judges who were perceived to be racist. It seemed that it had been accepted that it was just “the way the judge was”.
One thing was clear: my client’s life would not be helped by being sent to prison. He was unemployed and didn’t have any family to support him; he had spent the vast majority of his childhood in the care system.
The guidelines given to magistrates and judges sentencing young people suggest that they should be aware that a significant proportion of looked-after children are, like Mr Ahmed, from BAME backgrounds. They are advised to recognise, when sentencing these young people, how being in the care system might have affected them, as there is a correlation between this and rates of offending in young people — in other words, children in care commit more criminal offences proportionally.
Also, many BAME young people experience discrimination and have had negative experiences of authority. Mr Ahmed had been excluded from multiple schools. “I feel like everyone is against me,” he told me. “I feel like that judge is just going to look at me and think, ‘Oh, another drug dealer.’ I don’t want this to be my life, man.” I could hear the upset in his voice.
He looked up at the ceiling and closed his eyes. “Look, I was just trying to make some money. I don’t have qualifications, I don’t have a family, I don’t have anyone . . .”
Mr Ahmed looked surprised when I agreed with him that the system was not in his favour. He said he was tired of constantly trying to argue with people who told him it was all about his life choices. I reassured him that I would make the court aware of all of the circumstances around his offending behaviour. “Mr Ahmed, I’m on your side.” He lifted his gaze and looked me in the eye. “Thank you. No one ever listens.”
In court I laid out all of the mitigating factors for the judge’s consideration. He thanked me before turning to my client and asking him to stand. “You were found in possession of a substantial amount of cannabis, almost half a kilo. I acknowledge that you have taken responsibility and pleaded at the earliest opportunity. I also note that you are just 18 years old and I have taken into consideration everything that Ms Wilson has said about your very difficult personal circumstances.”
I felt nervous as the judge got closer to giving my client his sentence. I couldn’t see Mr Ahmed as he was in the dock behind me, but I imagined him fidgeting. “Mr Ahmed,” the judge continued. “I would have given you a 12-month sentence, but I have reduced this to eight months to reflect your early guilty plea.”
I heard sniffling behind me, but the judge had not yet finished. “I am suspending this sentence for a period of 18 months. In that time you will be on a community order. You will complete a thinking-skills programme for 20 days.” (This was a group-work programme designed to help prevent reoffending.)
The judge continued: “You will also complete a rehabilitation activity requirement [RAR] for ten days.” The RAR was intended to help him to develop the skills he needed to function in the community, with the aim of reducing the chance he would reoffend.
Mr Ahmed was pleased with the judge’s decision. Nothing would have been achieved by sending him to prison and at least these programmes would give him a chance.
the tattooed man who claimed he was afraid of needles
Mr Noah’s defence for failing to provide a blood sample when stopped for suspected drug driving was that he had a needle phobia and was too scared to consent to a blood test. The main issue I could see was that the solicitor had not been able to instruct a medical expert to prove this phobia was genuine because Mr Noah was adamant he didn’t need one.
I looked up at the clock. Mr Noah was expected at 9.30am. It was almost 11am. I popped into court and tried to mouth to the usher that my client hadn’t appeared. Unfortunately she thought I was confirming we were ready and called it on with a smile.
I stood up to address the judge and apologised for not, in fact, being ready to proceed with my case. The judge lectured me on the importance of arriving on time. I nodded courteously. I hated being told off in court. It made me feel like a naughty child.
Back in the robing room my name was called out on the court speaker system: “Can Ms Wilson report to reception immediately?” As I approached reception, I could see a heavily tattooed man with a beer can in his hand shouting at the security officers. I called out for Mr Noah. The seemingly drunk man paused his shouting and turned towards me. “Are you my lawyer? These idiots won’t let me in.” Ah, so he was Mr Noah.
I walked over to him and picked up on a strong smell of marijuana. Turning up drunk and high to court when you had refused to provide a blood sample for suspected drug driving was not ideal. And his arms were covered in tattoos! A needle phobia? Really? I explained to him that I would have to ask for an adjournment. I only hoped that on the next occasion he would turn up sober and on time.
the girl who begged to be tagged to keep her away from a drugs gang
I knew very little about Layla, other than the fact that she was 14. My instructing solicitors had told me this was a potential “county lines” case. County lines refers to an organised criminal network exploiting vulnerable young people by sending them to sell drugs in rural areas. The young people are instructed to travel across counties (the “county” part) and use basic, hard-to-trace phones (the “lines” part) to supply drugs. The children’s commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England involved in gang activity and about 4,000 in London alone are being exploited through county lines activity.
Layla had been arrested for being involved in the supply of class B drugs. She claimed she had never sold cannabis, but just had it for personal use. She said she didn’t have to pay for it because her “friends” gave it to her free. The police report detailed that when she was arrested she had £100 in cash, which they deemed unusual for a girl of her age. The police officer also commented on how “unwashed” she looked. He remarked how attached Layla was to her phone. He noted that during the arrest Layla received a stream of messages asking where she was. Layla strolled into court and asked where her lawyer was. I led her into a conference room. She had no interest in going through the evidence in any detail and I explained that today we would be asking for the case to be adjourned. She nodded along. Her phone rang repeatedly throughout our conference and I asked her to turn it off, but she merely put it on silent mode. We finished and returned to the waiting area with her social worker.
Layla had a brand-new phone. I asked her when she got it.
“Last week. Social services got it for me,” she said, not looking up.
Her social worker leant towards me to whisper: “We didn’t. We’re concerned about where Layla is getting all of these new things.”
The social worker went on to tell me that they were worried about Layla spending a lot of her time with men in their twenties; the people she was calling her “friends”. The social worker suspected that the gifts were provided by them and had her suspicions about what was expected in return.
I looked at Layla again. She was wearing brand-new trainers and a coat that I knew cost at least a few hundred pounds.
I invited Layla back into a conference room to talk. I asked her whether the older boys she had befriended were buying her these items. She giggled nervously and looked away. I waited patiently. She said that they were. I asked whether they were the same people that gave her drugs. Layla’s face went white. ‘“I can’t tell you anything. Please ask them to put me on tag. They come and pick me up in the evenings. Just, please, I want to be put on a tag so I just can’t go out.”
I was shocked. I had never had a client ask to be electronically monitored. It made sense. She wanted to say no to her “friends” but didn’t know how to; a tag would keep her indoors in the evening. I explained that pleading guilty was unlikely to lead to her being put on an electronic tag. Given that the Home Office was assessing whether she was a victim of child exploitation, today’s hearing would just be adjourned awaiting the Home Office’s decision, which could take up to six months.
The case was adjourned successfully. Layla’s mother could not speak much English, but had tears in her eyes as she asked if these “bad people” who Layla was spending time with would be stopped. I tried to explain that the Home Office were continuing to investigate whether Layla was a victim of child exploitation. There was little more that I could say. I could only hope that Layla was willing to talk openly to the person carrying out the assessment. I encouraged her to be forthcoming about everything. I could see she was terrified. All I could do was urge her to put a small amount of faith into the system, a system she had no reason to trust. I quickly learnt this is the reality for young, vulnerable people in our criminal justice system.
Extracted from In Black and White: A Young Barrister’s Story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System by Alexandra Wilson, published on August 13 (Endeavour £16.99).
Alexandra specialises in both criminal and family law. In her criminal law practice she represents a variety of clients charged with serious matters and specialises in young and vulnerable clients. Her family law practice includes private children, public children, domestic abuse and finance cases.