Black Lawyers Matter

Est. read time: 8 min

University of Manchester

Seminar, 5 May 2016

Black Lawyers Matter

Greetings, Manchester!
First of all, let me apologise that I cannot join you as I have had to take the opportunity to slot into an important out-patient’s appointment.  I thought I would share these few thoughts, nevertheless:

I want to begin with an anecdote.
The year is 1975 and I am conducting research on ‘youth and race in the inner city’ in 16 towns and cities across England, including at a youth club in Spon Street, Coventry.  At that club I find some highly talented, if somewhat frustrated, young people.  One of them, a youth about 16 or 17, is especially sharp witted, funny and demonstrates obvious leadership qualities.  We get talking and over several months we have deep conversations about youth policy, police and their criminalisation of young black people, black youth unemployment and much else besides.  Eventually, I pose the question:  why are you hanging around this youth centre day after day? Why are you not at college?  His answers were predictable.  His school experience had turned him off learning and he expected college to be even worse.  I told him emphatically that he would end up even more frustrated, because he was wasting his talents and he should not allow his school experience to make him less than he could be.  If he didn’t register to go to college by the time I next saw him, I would kick his butt.
He did register. We kept in touch throughout his ‘A’ levels.  He was a brilliant Sixth Form student and university undergraduate and now he is one of the most successful lawyers in the UK and internationally.  His name is Courtney Griffiths QC. And even today, to his credit, he tells that story better than I ever could.
There are hundreds of potential Courtney Griffiths across the UK, including here in Manchester.  Sadly, however, there are too few firms such as Garden Court, with which I have been associated since the late 1960s, and too few social justice, human rights and civil liberties pioneers such as Ian Macdonald QC, Owen Davies QC and Mark George QC who deliberately made it their business to nurture and encourage talented students such as Courtney Griffiths QC, Leslie Thomas QC, Michael Hall QC, Icah Peart QC, all black males, and many others who are now among the best advocates in the country, often creating legal precedents in both civil and criminal cases. They in turn have been worthy mentors to a solid body of younger barristers such as Allison Bailey, Grace Brown, Celia Graves, Sandra Fisher, Alex Taylor-Camara and Alison Munroe.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Garden Court North Chambers won the ‘Barristers Chambers of the Year Award’ at the Manchester Legal Awards 2016 at the beginning of March.

So, why do Black Lawyers matter?
Three principal reasons as far as I am concerned:
a)    ensuring access to justice for the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society and
b)    ensuring that members of such groups can be represented as of right by people like themselves
c)    ensuring that all barriers to people from such groups becoming legal practitioners in any and all areas of the law are broken down and that more and more young black people see it as their right to so become.

It is a well established fact that black people are amongst the most marginalised, discriminated against and socially excluded groups in society.  We are all familiar with the statistics relating to our representation in school exclusions, youth offending, youth unemployment, serious youth violence, young offender institutions, adolescent and adult mental health services, deaths in custody…and the rest.  Similarly, we access the services of lawyers like others in the population, except that those ‘others’ are not undifferentiated.  We buy and sell houses; we enter into contracts of one sort or another; we contend with welfare rights and civil liberties matters; we protect our intellectual property; we contest driving offences; we consent immigration and asylum decisions; we challenge schools in the Special Education Tribunal; we defend charges in the criminal court. Some legal services we are unable to access on account of lack of funds.  That renders us more open to exploitation, abuse and denial of fundamental rights, including by various arms of the state.
Thankfully, the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society are often the ones who have the highest aspirations for their children, including an ambition to see them become lawyers and doctors.
The critical issue, then, is how to focus young people, young black males in particular, upon the need to have and nurture high ambitions and ensure that schooling, peer relationships and their own positive mental attitude lay the foundations for them to realise their high ambitions.  How to ensure that appropriate networks of support are built around young people, especially given the fact that in school, no less than in the community and among their peers, having high ambitions and bringing a consistency of discipline to the way you work towards those high ambitions is not seen as organic, natural and commonplace.
That is why, there is an onus on higher education institutions such as MMU, University of Manchester and Salford University to acknowledge those structural and cultural barriers and their devastating impact upon young people’s life chances, and take proportionate, positive or affirmative action measures to nurture the supply end of their operation.  Promoting equal opportunity and combating discrimination and social exclusion is as much about that as it is about sifting UCAS forms and organising interviews for would be undergraduates.
I believe that HE institutions should create opportunities to work in partnership with communities in as organic a manner as possible. One example:
I co-founded an organisation in London in 1999, the Communities Empowerment Network (CEN), the principal purpose of which is to challenge school’s abuse and misapplication of school exclusion powers and to represent excluded students and their parents/families.  Since 1999 we have dealt with upwards of 1,000 exclusion cases per year.  I was CEN’s chair for a number of years and I am now its patron.  We represent students at Governors Disciplinary Committee hearings and in Independent Review Tribunals.
In the last decade, funding for education advice services has been pretty much eliminated, to the extent that CEN and Just for Kids Law are the only two organisations working to provide representation and safeguard the rights of students as learners. Consequently, we have been providing advocacy training for parents groups, community education projects and volunteers so that they could develop the skills to do such work in their own communities or neighbourhoods.  The training is delivered by our own parent advocates, but also by lawyers working in partnership with CEN.  A growing number of law firms are committing their staff to work with us as part of their corporate social responsibility commitments and to extend the skills base within communities as far as advocacy and representation are concerned.
Solicitors and barristers come to us as volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds, but principally from that ever expanding area of education law.
Academies and free schools are excluding at a much higher rate in proportion to the total number of schools:
•    In 2012-13 a total of 18,763 maintained schools excluded 2,700 pupils.
•    Yet, only 2,390 academies excluded 1,930 pupils (a mere 770 less than 19,000 maintained schools)
CEN works closely with the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England and participated fully with their recent surveys on school exclusions. Those surveys revealed some shocking statistics:
‘In Year 1 of our School Exclusions Inquiry we found a boy of Black Caribbean heritage with Special Educational Needs (SEN), eligible for free school meals is 168 times more likely to be excluded from school than a White British girl without SEN, from a more affluent family….
On 24 April 2013 we published our Year 2 report “Always Someone Else’s Problem” on illegal exclusions. Supported by a survey of teachers, it details the scale and nature of children illegally excluded. At a conservative estimate, this affects thousands of children in several hundred schools’.
One can envisage.  No, let me be more audacious.  I believe that after today, the Law School should seek to build a 3-way partnership involving some of its own staff and students, a local community group that supports school students and parents, and local law firms (solicitors and barristers) and set up an offshoot of CEN.  Lawyers could therefore volunteer to provide advocacy and representation to excluded students and their parents and to special education needs students in particular.  This could happen at the same time as providing training in advocacy and representation to young people in the community, and especially to those thinking of a career in law.
It would be good to be able to envisage, for example, students having a gap year opting to volunteer or work part-time providing those services within the community.
This model represents a genuine partnership between the university and the community, where it uses its resources, expertise and contacts with legal practitioners to help build the community’s capacity to act in defence of its own rights, while at the same time demonstrating to would-be applicants from the community that studying law at UoM is not something beyond their reach.  For one thing, it might just help to dispel myths about academics in universities and demonstrate that they are regular folk and don’t bite…. at least not all of them.

Prof Gus John
5 May 2016

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