Simon & Schuster (April 2022) ISBN 9781471184802
Reviewed by Liz Davies QC

Leslie Thomas QC’s chambers’ profile contains what you might expect for a well-known silk: he is an expert in police law and Article 2 inquests, he is an amazing advocate, etc.

His autobiography is much more revealing. He tells us how he got to his current success but also, crucially, explains why his work for bereaved families and victims of police shootings or assaults matters.

Full disclosure: Leslie and I are both members of Garden Court Chambers. I have known him for over 25 years, and succeeded him as one of the Joint Heads of Chambers.

What distinguishes Leslie from the ‘normal successful QC’ is that he has spent his professional life standing up against state racism. More than any other barrister, he is the person who has represented Black people, principally men, killed by the police, prisons or other institutions, or beaten up, or unlawfully arrested and imprisoned, or who killed themselves in very mysterious circumstances. The roll-call of his famous cases is lengthy: Sean Rigg (who died on the floor of Brixton police station), Azelle Rodney (shot by the police), Christopher Alder (died on the police of Hull police station), Mark Duggan (shot by the police), the Hillsborough families, families of those killed in the Birmingham pub bombings, the Bereaved Survivors and Residents of Grenfell Tower, and more. Leslie’s account of these cases reads like a thriller, and it’s sobering to remember they were real.

Leslie is the lawyer in the inquest, or the inquiry, or the court claim, who puts the bereaved family’s questions and their case. He’s looked police officers in the eye and said, ‘Sergeant, you are a liar… You grossly failed in your duty of care,’ – when the police left Sean Rigg dying alone in the back of a police van, with him finally to die on the concrete floor of Brixton police station. Leslie’s job is to obtain clarity so that families know how and why the deaths happened. Clarity is the first step in a family’s search for justice.

Sometimes clarity reveals that institutions are not to blame. At other times, institutions are exposed as employing racist bad apples, systematic failures and even institutional racism. That’s why clarity matters.

What also matters to the clients, most of whom are Black, is when their representative personally understands racism. Leslie is uncompromising in his account of growing up in West and South London, of losing friends or girlfriends due to racism, of certain pubs or clubs being danger zones.

He describes being asked what island he came from and whether he liked cricket when he was a pupil, dining in Inner Temple Hall. And the common experience of Black lawyers: when court officials assume you are the defendant.

Leslie speaks for so many when he writes, ‘The racism wasn’t always explicit, but I could always sense when a judge was against me because of the colour of my skin.’

So being subject to racism is part of Leslie’s lived experience. Good lawyers don’t have to have the same lived experiences as their clients, but where they do, it helps to promote trust.

Everyone contemplating a career in the law should read this book. Leslie is brutally honest about the vicissitudes of life at the Bar: mistakes he made early on, a work commitment that impacted on his personal life, and (by the nature of his practice) unwanted media attention, as well as the highs of winning high-profile cases.

But the book is about far more than one lawyer’s career. It is a no-holds-barred account of all the key inquiries into police institutional racism and should be read by campaigners, journalists and anyone with a hunger for justice.