It is remarkable to observe that even though the first Black barrister to practise in the English courts, Christian Cole, was called to the Bar as long ago as 1883, it took until 2023 for any Circuit to appoint a barrister from an Afro-Caribbean background as its Leader.

However, I am delighted to say that the North Eastern Circuit achieved this ‘first’ when Jason Pitter KC was voted in as Leader at the beginning of this year. I was especially pleased because Jason is not just an old friend and someone I have known throughout my time at the Bar, he is also someone I have seen almost singlehandedly break the moulds and rise through the glass ceilings that this profession has, at times, imposed on people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

It is also of note that this is not the only occasion that Jason has been the ‘first’. He was the first barrister on the North Eastern Circuit from an Afro-Caribbean background to be appointed as a KC (2014), a Bencher (Gray’s Inn) and a Recorder.

It was therefore my great pleasure to catch up with Jason for a 30-minute chat, at the end of his first three months as Leader. I start by asking him how he has become such a trailblazer.

He is the son of Jamaican born parents who came to the UK as part of the Windrush Generation. Modest as ever, Jason talks about his upbringing in the late 1970s and 80s in the Chapeltown area of Leeds, which is a few miles from the city centre. He is anxious to make clear that it is the values instilled in him by his hardworking parents, and those in the wider community, that have been a guiding light for him throughout his legal career.

‘What you have to remember is that Chapeltown was not simply a Black/Afro-Caribbean area. It was essentially a mixed working class area populated at various times by the different waves of immigrant communities alongside the White working class community, way before Windrush even. We were all in the same boat with the same struggles, but there was a richness in that cultural mix.’

Jason tells me about his earliest memories growing up in this environment. He recalls his mother and father working back-breaking shifts, first on the buses (where they met), and then in the factories and foundries to the south of the city. That being said, his was a happy childhood, and part of his parents’ ethic was to always want and encourage their children to excel – whatever the circumstances.

When, then, did Jason first become aware that the colour of his skin made a difference to how he was treated? It seems the first occasion that really stuck in his mind was when a film company associated with the BBC came to his primary school to film a period TV drama set in World War II.

‘In a clumsy attempt to be inclusive they made all the Black and Asian kids dress up as well… but then kept us out of sight of any of the cameras, as if we would not notice. For the first time there was the feeling, that the view was, we were somehow not part of this country’s history or culture.’

Growing up, Jason was acutely aware of the social upheavals that were taking place in Britain in the early 80s and the impact of these on communities like his own.

‘There was a sense of economic social injustice which was compounded by the effects of racism – including by the authorities. Many studies and reports, in particular by Lord Scarman, made plain the link between those conditions and the unrest and riots within our communities. When you grow up in that environment you get a different understanding of the effects of those conditions and the frustrations that go with it. Including how they might manifest. At that age you are simply left asking, “Why is it like this?” It was the community elders, youth and sport club leaders who helped me make sense of what was going on and what needed to be done.’

Jason experienced, first-hand, the iniquitous overuse of police powers, having himself being stopped on his way into school. He makes it clear that the driving forces throughout his career have been to ‘not be defined and limited by my disadvantages in life… to promote strong community ties, while standing up to injustice’.

A gifted student who became Head Boy at his state comprehensive school, City of Leeds School (now Leeds City Academy), Jason also had a love of basketball and captained the local youth team who went on to be regional champions under coach Norman Francis, a national league player and Chapeltown legend. Jason describes Norman as ‘a hard but compassionate man who influenced the lives of many with life lessons, like unity and “fighting” for each other’. One day, quite fortuitously, the renowned barrister Courtenay Griffiths KC was in the city, having been instructed to defend in cases arising out of the disturbances in the area. He visited the local basketball club. ‘Courtenay introduced himself and gave an inspirational speech about what we could achieve, regardless of racial barriers, and how we could use our talents to build a strong community. I will never forget it.’

Courtenay became a mentor to Jason and they formed a firm friendship that exists to this day.

Jason went on to study law at King’s College London and was called to the Bar in 1994. However, even having someone as experienced with race issues as Courtenay in his corner did not prepare Jason for life as one of only two Black barristers (the other being Stephen Bedoe) practising on the North Eastern Circuit at the time.

‘In hindsight, the Circuit simply was not ready for someone like me,’ Jason recalls. ‘In those days there was a sense that the only way to get on was to try and fit in by not promoting or accepting any cultural differences. While there will always be a degree of compromise, I was never going to be able to completely do that.’ That was a significant part of the inevitable turbulence he experienced in his early years of practice. Having said that, he points out that, like anyone who has succeeded, he did have some key allies who were prepared to take him on merit and ability. For him that came initially in the form of Robert Smith KC, his pupil supervisor Alistair MacDonald KC and his close friend Paul Greaney KC. Access to these kinds of ‘relationships’ are invaluable in people moving forward in their career.

When I ask if he has ever been the victim of racism when practising as a barrister, Jason clearly finds this a difficult question to answer: ‘Of course! It was rarely done overtly, but after many years you develop a pretty reliable sense of when it is occurring, or more often, when it has occurred, with the benefit of hindsight. It would manifest itself in judges or senior members of the professions speaking to you differently, or not at all, which can be just as damaging when it came to inclusion. It included the casual racism and sexism of robing room banter where there was an expectation that we should be able to put up with it, if we wanted to be a part of the “club”. Or being mistaken for the only other Black barrister on Circuit. These are things which we are now able to properly call out and we all have a responsibility to do so.

‘The more dangerous kind, however, was what I would hear had been said “behind the scenes” or out of earshot by some quite senior personalities, about people like myself. This included the unfair stereotyping, references to “not being the type” and the need to make sure “things did not change too quickly”. In a sense I am sometimes glad I was not aware of those things at the time. This was not just about race but other protected characteristics too. It’s no wonder, then, that 20 odd years later, the overall rate of change has been at best glacial.’

This was not just confined to the Bar: ‘In the early days, the perception of some solicitors was that White clients wouldn’t want a Black barrister and that although a Black client would want Black counsel, a jury or tribunal may somehow be affronted by the sight of a Black client being represented by a Black advocate. It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now.

‘This led to many being pigeonholed into certain types of publicly funded work based on incorrect assumptions. I was always keen to take any opportunity to try to push against being typecast in that way. Of course, that is dependent on being given the opportunity in the first place. You also had to be prepared for the reality that your performance felt like it would be subject to greater scrutiny. While the resilience needed may have contributed to the way I operate and the practice that I now have, it does not make it right.’

Nevertheless, nearly 30 years since he was called to the Bar, the statistics do show a very slow rate of change, particularly in terms of the numbers from ethnic minorities thriving in the profession. I ask what he plans to do about this now he is Leader.

‘In the past it has been far too easy to say “Well, if we don’t get good candidates coming to us how can we recruit them?” That looks at the responsibility the wrong way round. My view is that the passage of time means we now need to actively reach out and help the wider community to engage with our profession. There are excellent candidates out there waiting to be discovered. We have the responsibility to discover them and to help them to demonstrate and realise their obvious potential if we are serious about true equality, diversity, and inclusion.’

Jason is also concerned that the profession realises recruitment is only the first part of the battle and that progression and retention are the others.

‘This should not be reduced to a simple numbers game, which can contribute to a misplaced sense of overcorrection. I make clear that this is an approach to be applied to everyone, regardless of advantage or disadvantage and is what I intend in my time as Leader. That being said, the realities that need to be addressed are that the attrition rate of women remains worryingly high and also that those from some ethnic minority groups are not always achieving the progress or exposure to work that their skills and potential deserve. On too many occasions I have been the only Black face in the room. Assuming I am in the room, I will continue to push for change. Being the Leader of Circuit is a part of that. I sense there is some spirit for this now. That includes from our senior leaders at the Bar and the Judiciary.

‘Alongside the welfare and working conditions of our members the key theme for me is true equality alongside excellence. Therefore, we must equip all practitioners, regardless of characteristics, to take full advantage of the opportunities they have, as well as ensuring they have those opportunities.’

Sadly, my time is up. Jason is a very busy man, juggling as he does a thriving practice (a combination of serious crime, professional misconduct and regulatory enforcement at New Park Court) with being Circuit Leader, a husband and a father to two young children. He unwinds at the gym and by indulging his passions for music and cooking. He tells me (not for the first time) that his oxtail stew is to die for and I remind him that after 24 years of knowing him I still haven’t tasted it! I look forward to updating you on that, and the progress of this pioneering Leader of Circuit, over the next few years. 


To find out more about the work of Chapeltown legend Norman Francis and his influential basketball programme, click here.