These are my thoughts and feelings about whether black lives matter at the Bar, specifically whether black barristers matter at the family law Bar of England & Wales .. or not…borne of my own life experience and practice. By Maria Scotland.
George Perry Floyd Jr. was 3 years younger than me. He was born on the 14th October 1973 and passed when he was just 46 years old on the 25th May 2020. He was American and in America his black skin and background made him “African American”. I was born in 1970 in London. My father came from Dominica and is black. Dominica was a British colony when I was born. My Mother came from Bangor, North Wales, and is white. I was born British mixed white and black which made me black British. In November 1978 Dominica attained its’ independence from Britain and my rights as a British citizen were curtailed and a line put through the back of my passport where it formerly said “this holder has the right of abode” at some point later when my passport was renewed. In 1970 I was known as black British. The term Black British developed in the 1950s, referring to the Black British West Indian people from the former Caribbean British colonies in the West Indies, of which Dominica is one, now referred to as the Windrush Generation, who are residents of the United Kingdom and are British.
I am now 50 years old and during my life, I have been classified as black British or Afro-Caribbean, then into the ‘90’s re-classified as “Other”, then in the 2000’s re-classified as white and black Caribbean mixed ethnicity and now I am lumped into one big class of non-whites called “Black Asian Minority Ethnic” or “BAME”. I am now defined as non-white or BAME.
I was called to the Bar of England & Wales in October 1995, and have practiced family law for 25 years. I am in a profession I love, in a position I love, amongst colleagues and chambers staff I love. I am lucky and my life is good. George Floyd Jr. was not so lucky and had a difficult life. He had 4 siblings but grew up in public housing in a very poor area. He played football and basketball throughout high school and college but struggled to find a job he stuck with or a career he loved. He lost his job during the pandemic and had no income. On the 25th May 2020, he allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill to a shopkeeper in Minneapolis, who called the Police. One of the white police officers who attended the shop to arrest George made him lie face down on the pavement, knelt on his neck for nearly 8 minutes and whilst he cried for his mum the Police Officer took George’s life.
George Floyd Jr.’s death sparked a movement that started as protests against police violence and quickly spread across the United States and internationally became known as the “Black Lives Matter” movement. And so, it is that George’s life, or more accurate his death, has touched my life. I could not watch the video of his death. I watched maybe a minute. I have never cried so hard for someone I did not know. Like everyone I was appalled. You do not need to be black to feel strong emotions at the way that George died and for the fact he died in broad day light on the pavement at the hands of the person charged with dispensing the local law.
However, George’s death has done more than bring up emotion; it has led us to think hard about the place in which we work and more particularly the institutions of law.
In the wake of the BLM movement the Bar and those within the legal profession have written articles decrying the events that took place in Minneapolis in March 2020 and the systemic racism and violence against black people generally in America. As the movement has gripped, Committees have been set up and mission statements put out in Chambers. There can be no doubt at all that excessive use of force offends the rule of law.
The Bar Council has said it resolutely supports the principles of justice and the rule of law and reaffirms its’ commitment to the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion both within the profession and the community we serve. It told us that “it is imperative that all people are treated equally and that the law is applied equitably”. But is it?
The Family Bar needs to do better on promoting equality and diversity to include more black barristers within its’ upper ranks. In 25 years at the Bar, I have only once walked into (the family) court at West London and seen a judge (who was not a lay magistrate) the same colour as me. This is untrue if we lump all non-whites into the one giant BAME categorisation, because there are Asian or other non-whites. Either there are no excellent outstanding black barristers at the Family Bar worthy … or something else.
I read the piece by Courtenay Griffiths QC in the July 2020 edition of Counsel magazine and agree entirely with what he says, which is to identify the systemic issues which he believes hold black barristers back from being appointed to the judiciary. He says:
‘Most High Court judges are recruited from chambers doing commercial, chancery and that kind of work.
‘But those are the very areas in the Bar where black people aren’t being recruited. Most of the black people coming into the Bar are doing legal aid work, family, crime and immigration, and not as many are succeeding in the commercial side of this profession.'
‘Those are the difficulties which are going to hinder the diversification of the higher courts in this country.’
Whilst I agree with the entire article by Dr. Griffiths, and that most black people are doing legal aid work, PUBLIC family work, crime and immigration. There is a slight caveat in relation to private family finance work, which is akin to the commercial and chancery work referenced by Dr Griffiths.
I undertake purely private family work and family financial matters, where the money is. The top-ranked/ top-tiered chambers attract the top big-money work which often goes to the High Court and becomes the reported cases in family finance law. Black barristers are not being recruited in this area of law. The solicitors undertaking the best type of work will only instruct barristers in the specialist sets. There are very few, if any black people in the sets that specialise in family financial work.
This means black people like me undertaking financial family work cannot regularly appear in reported cases and therefore it makes it difficult to attain Silk and be recruited to the Bench; just as Dr. Griffiths said. His comments are supported by government data published on the 13 January 2020 at gov.uk:
“Ethnicity facts and figures: judges and non-legal members of the judiciary”. On the 1st April 2019, 92.6% of court judges (2,564 judges) were White and 1.1% were black (30 judges).
Whilst so much work is being done to try to promote diversity at grass roots level these young shoots need to know they have a place to grow and thrive.
Maria Scotland practices exclusively in family law with a specialism in high end/ big money financial remedy applications and (private law) children work. She accepts instructions to act through a solicitor or directly from members of the public on a Direct Access basis. Maria is the joint head of the Family Team at 5 St Andrew’s Hill.