BarNone: changing the face of justice

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On the Western Circuit, a group of barristers dedicated to encourage applications from underrepresented groups has launched – Anjali Gohil and Sunyana Sharma explain how you can get involved

‘What is an acceptable face of justice?’ asked Marvin Rees, Bristol’s Mayor at BarNone’s launch event on 23 July 2020. It is a question, on the Western Circuit, that we have started to ask ourselves.

For us it is notable that no full-time circuit judge on the Western Circuit appears to be from an ethnic minority. Let’s break this down – there are 12 crown court centres on the Western Circuit, comprised of between one to eight full-time judges. All are white. Each of the resident judges is white and male.

At Bristol Crown Court alone there are eight full-time circuit judges, all of whom are white men. Meanwhile, according to city council data, 16% of the population of Bristol is Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) with 28% of Bristol’s 0 to 5 year olds belonging to BAME groups. Why does this matter? What difference does it make what colour, nationality, race or religion a judge is as long as they are fair, impartial and objective?

These are questions which we, as barristers of colour, are often challenged with. The simple answer is that diversity matters. It is an inherent good. Andrew Langdon QC, then Leader of the Western Circuit, raised this as a key issue seven years ago, when responding to proposed cuts to legal aid. If you would like to see the video we made please do view this link.

If the people appointed to judge our fellow citizens are derived solely from a narrow pool of public school educated, white men, what is the nature of justice dispensed? We make clear at the outset that being a white, privately educated man does not and should not render you an unfair judge.

However, if the judiciary in an entire area of the country is drawn from such a narrow pool there is a danger that no one is present to explain the cultural nuances, the various facets of human experience which fall outside the narrow frame of reference of that pool.

Courts hearing criminal cases require an understanding of human nature – an ability to communicate with, understand and be understood by ordinary members of the public from every background is truly crucial. It becomes even more important when sentencing data reveals disparities in sentencing for BAME defendants… which brings us back to the oft-asked question – why does it matter?

It matters because justice has to be done and justice has to be seen to be done. A truly representative judiciary acts as a check against justice being dispensed through the lens of a privately educated, white male gaze.

The Western Circuit Women’s Forum (WCWF) has undertaken some excellent work in the last few years in understanding why there has been low female retention at the Bar and has made considerable effort in encouraging more women to apply to be silks and judges. However, it is widely accepted that there is a shocking lack of ethnic diversity on Circuit. We recognise that we are far behind metropolitan cities and other regions in cultivating barristers from non-traditional backgrounds. Most of our barristers still hail from privately educated institutions and we can count on one hand the number of Black barristers.

In the autumn of 2019 a group of barristers, encouraged by the Leader of the Western Circuit, Kate Brunner QC, realised that if we wanted change, we would need to lead with solutions and BarNone was formed.

BarNone is comprised of a steering group of barristers across the Western Circuit, from Devon to Winchester, Portsmouth to Bristol who practise in all areas of the law and encompass every level of call. Our aim is to encourage applications from underrepresented groups with a particular focus upon those from state school and BAME backgrounds through the process of education, mentoring and outreach work.

The response has been terrific. All major sets on Circuit have signed up to our initiative to award at least 50% of mini pupillages to those from state school or BAME backgrounds. At our launch event, the Recorder of Bristol, HHJ Blair QC, spoke of the need for BAME judges and stated ‘this is not an acceptable face of justice in a city like Bristol’.

If you are thinking about a career at the Bar but feel that it isn’t for people like you, take a second look. If you take that second look and are worried when no one looks like you, read this and take heart. We live in a time when the most senior in our professions welcome you and admire your efforts to get to where you want and deserve to be, no matter your background. Go on Twitter (@BarNone2020), LinkedIn (BarNone) and Instagram (_barnone_) to read the stories of our steering group and beyond – we are here, we are successful and we are welcoming you with open arms.

To find out how to get involved please contact Anjali Gohil via: BarNone@westerncircuit.co.uk

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Anjali Gohil

Anjali Gohil is Chair of BarNone and a criminal barrister at Guildhall Chambers, Bristol.

Sunyana Sharma

Sunyana Sharma is a  Steering Committee Member of BarNone and inquest, professional disciplinary and maritime barrister at 3PB.