Dame Linda Dobbs came to law through a love of Russian. ‘It harks back to my school days,’ she tells me. ‘The headmistress announced that a Russian baron was coming to teach. It sounded so glamorous! A lot of us signed up. As it happened, he wasn’t a Russian baron, he was German, and he wasn’t a great teacher, but I absolutely loved the language and literature.’

Her family wanted her to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer but she chose to study music at Edinburgh University. ‘Once I got there I realised that the advice of my music teacher was accurate –that one should keep it as a hobby because it is a very difficult career to go into and succeed.’

She found out about a new course in languages with a special subject, ‘so I was lucky to read Russian with law [at the University of Surrey]. I went on to do a LLM and PhD [in Soviet criminology and penology] at the London School of Economics and eventually came around to thinking about the Bar.’

No easy option either, but after call in 1981 and a fortuitous pupillage, she established a successful criminal practice. Silk followed in 1998, she was elected a Bencher in 2002 and in 2004 became the first black High Court judge. At the time she shrugged off the role of standard bearer, saying: ‘I am simply a practitioner following a career path’ whilst hopeful she was ‘first of many to come’.

This has not come to pass, despite many warm words about recruiting more women and more minority ethnic – particularly black – judges from district level up. I ask for her thoughts on that.

‘As somebody pointed out to me the other day, I am still the only senior judge from an African background – and that is where we are sadly lacking.

‘BAME is such a broad term and takes in a massive range of different minorities. If you look at the hue of the minority ethnic judiciary we have got quite a good Indian/Asian representation. But as we see in schools, African/Afro-Caribbeans are the ones who are held up, and you see that throughout the professions.’

I list a number of very able senior black practitioners and potential judges. ‘But the question is, are they interested? And why not?’ asks Dame Linda who references the recruitment problem in the senior judiciary which is not just due to the pension issue. ‘The conditions are tougher and it’s a lot of work. When these people are so successful, why should they give that up to public service? There may not be that same desire to serve. And it’s a vicious circle because if you don’t see enough people in the judicial make-up like yourself, it’s a big, big step to take and it does make a difference – knowing that you are going to be in a culture in which you will stand out. I suspect that is a really big turn off.’

In my interview with The Guardian’s Gary Younge (Counsel September 2018) we discussed the specific category in the USA of ‘Black American’. Latinos have their own groups, collect data and fight their own battles, as do American Asians. Younge felt we ought not to fracture the definitions, but I suggest to Dame Linda that we should be re-defining the categories so that the Black British can address the problems of being left behind in schools and society. In the context of silk and the senior judiciary – and in light of the Race Disparity Advisory Group set up by Theresa May and chaired by Simon Woolley – it is time to start looking at ‘Black African’ and ‘Afro-Caribbean’ as distinct categories to better measure progress?

‘I think there is certainly an argument for that because to lump everybody under that one [BAME] banner is simplistic and it does those who need help a great disservice. You are talking about completely different cultures [and] differences of opportunity. I suspect that fewer of those from Indian or Asiatic backgrounds have single parents. We know that many youngsters from the Afro-Caribbean background are single parents who struggle to keep their kids...’

Dame Linda once kindly gave me an opportunity to be part of a conference on the issues surrounding a judiciary for the 21st century, including Dame Hazel Genn’s research on the problem of the definition of merit and that, at the then rate of change, it would take 50 years to see a diverse judiciary. What is merit? Who is defining it? And is it a barrier to change?

‘I have been saying to the Judicial Appointments Commission since its inception that one needs to look at what merit means. We also need to pay serious attention to the issue of potential. People find that quite difficult as a concept. How can you possibly measure potential? It is not an exact science but you can get an idea.’

She gives the example (taking race out of the equation) of a white boy from single parent family. Mum had two jobs so was hardly ever at home, the young lad used to do newspaper rounds to contribute to the household. He studied really hard and got into University College London, for argument’s sake. On the other hand, you have a young boy from Eton who had extra tuition to get into UCL. They both get a 2:1.

‘What does that tell you?’ Dame Linda asks. ‘Some people say, well they are equal because they both got 2:1s. When it’s quite apparent to me that the boy with all the disadvantages has got a) ability b) stickability c) wants to go (and is going) places and d) has real potential, given the correct support, to be a real star. I don’t think enough attention is paid to [that].’

Recently, there has been a move at the Bar towards blind and contextual recruitment (Counsel September 2018, April 2019). When I came to the Bar, the fact that I got a 2:1, having sat my finals shortly after giving birth to twin boys was not noted as exceptional, nor was running a career whilst juggling parenting. So I see how looking at this sort of added value and ways to measure potential can be of huge benefit in attracting previously undiscovered talent.

Dame Linda agrees. ‘When I am doing selection exercises I always look at added value. But one has to be careful not to say that being a woman or being black is the added value... that is where people get it wrong. They think oh well, you want more women, so let’s increase the number of women and that’s why people get hostile... Actually, you have to choose people who are right for the job but you also have to look more closely at their experiences, how they are relevant to the job and what value that adds.’

Gary Younge highlighted the need for diverse selection committees, noting that it ‘changes the conversation in the room’. Dame Linda nods. ‘Then again, if there aren’t enough role models and there aren’t enough people to be put on the panel you are not going to have a diverse committee.’

Is this another vicious circle? Either senior black practitioners do not see the judiciary as a place of welcome or feel they fall into the category of the ‘usual suspects’ and are fatigued about that?

‘Sadly people are lazy. Instead of actively looking around to see who else they could recruit, whether it’s a commentator on something or anyone else, they tend to choose the usual suspects. [We should be] pulling in people who have not been pulled in before and getting them engaged. Role models is what we are, reluctantly or not, and it’s really important to not just have the “same old”. As time goes on I am more removed from what’s actually going on but there are people actively involved on the ground who should be spotted and used.’

Do we need more black barrister networks? ‘City firms all have their own diversity initiatives. Years ago I was advocating that there should be more joined up thinking and now [some] firms work together... The Bar is slightly different and it’s always been at a bit of a tangent; we don’t have the same numbers. The Black Solicitors’ Network is large and vibrant but what does the Bar have? There are one or two organisations but they are small and don’t have the same support behind them. It seems to me that depending on who is Chair of the Bar will dictate how much diversity work there is. It varies from year to year.’

Dame Linda may be less involved with what is going on at Bar ground level but since retirement from the High Court in 2013 she maintains her commitment to UK justice whilst working with innovative grassroots initiatives in Africa.

‘I have this huge Lloyds [Banking Group] investigation which is taking longer than originally anticipated and takes up a fair amount of time. I am also the Independent Assessor for Miscarriages of Justice Compensation and a Judicial Commissioner for the Investigatory Powers Commission. So it’s all very interesting. Alongside this I am a Director of Training at the Judicial Institute for Africa based at the University of Cape Town South Africa where I am an honorary professor. We do short training courses for judges in Africa.’

Dame Linda has been training lawyers and judges all over the world for years now. Does she still enjoy it? ‘I love it – absolutely love it. I learn so much.’

She is also patron of two charities in South Africa. One is Masicorp, an NGO promoting education in Masiphumelele, a township near Cape Town. ‘We have set up crèches, we have built a library in the community and that has made a huge difference – it’s the hub of the community. We have a computer room. We teach English because literacy is a huge challenge in South Africa. We also encourage entrepreneurs.’ The charity runs a sewing school for women who, after a six-month course, get a certificate and a sewing machine which means that they then can earn money in the charity’s shop that takes in work. ‘So that’s a real virtuous circle. We also do lots of other amazing work. We have 65 volunteers.’

Dame Linda is also a patron of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy which runs industry-recognised courses in wine, tourism and the fruit sector. ‘Youngsters from the townships come to study and learn from soil to marketing, right across the board, then do work experience. The attrition rate is one of the lowest I have come across. About 90-95% succeed and our record of employment for our young graduates is second to none: about 95%! Employers love our graduates because they have initiative, confidence, are well-grounded and well-schooled – so that’s terribly exciting. Pivotal to the programme is that every single participant has their own mentor.’

What stands out for me is that the scheme takes the ‘raw material’ of potential and with the right support and mentoring produces ‘stars’. So to my mind if we are trying to solve this age-old problem of getting more African and Afro-Caribbean judges on the Bench, it is not rocket science.

I recall the times in my own career when I visited Dame Linda and Margaret Bowron QC for a chat and that gave me the strength and encouragement to carry on at the Bar. Who was Dame Linda’s role model? ‘I am often asked that… [but back] then there was nobody like me really that I could relate to.’

Things no doubt got tough at times and I ask for one example. ‘The one really etched in my mind is as a pupil in my second six. Our clerk was away and a brief came into chambers – not to me specifically – to represent two National Front lads for smashing an Asian shopkeeper’s window. I opened the papers and thought “This is not a good idea.” It was 1981! So I went to see the senior clerk and asked if he thought it a good idea. I just had a feeling that he had done it on purpose. He said “Ah, Ms Dobbs, don’t worry. Do an Al Johnson in reverse – put on some of that tennis white and they won’t notice the difference.”

‘It still shocks me. I was terrified when I turned up to do the case. I called out their names, and very much as anticipated, they took one look at me and... I had to take control, but how? I hadn’t planned it but I had looked through the police transcripts and wanted to make sure that they were happy with the interviews etc. In the transcript one of them had mentioned a wog box. So I asked, “What is a “wog box?” I knew exactly what it was, of course... They started to wriggle around in their seats, really embarrassed, and that’s when the balance of power shifted. I was able to persuade the prosecutor to give them a bind over. All they were worried about was whether they were going inside for Christmas. I often wonder whether sitting and chatting with me for that time made any difference to their prejudices.

‘I have had other clients who didn’t want me because either I was a woman or black; you never quite knew which... You just had to get on with the job as best you could so they could see that you were a competent lawyer.’

What advice would she give a young black woman coming to the Bar today? ‘My advice would be the same to any young person. Get yourself a mentor; someone who will support you. Get yourself a champion, who is not necessarily the same person. I had people who pushed and championed me. Had they not done so, I certainly would not have done it.

‘In this day and age you also need to trumpet your own achievements – not in a showy or aggressive way but in a way that lets people know what you are doing. You also need to know yourself. It is important to understand the difference between assertions and evidence when applying for anything.’

Looking back, I ask Dame Linda if she enjoyed her time sitting as a High Court judge? ‘I found the work varied and some colleagues incredibly supportive. You must make sure that you have the qualities and patience for the job. I am very impatient [but] it can be highly rewarding because you have the opportunity to do really important work deciding serious issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives.’

And her early days? ‘My first day was fairly easy in that it was lots of applications. My clerk put my books in court, came back for me and said “My goodness I have never seen such a packed court before – probably come to see if you are up to the job.” It wasn’t a great way to start one’s judicial career and indeed the court was heaving which made me feel a bit like a curiosity...

‘I tried to keep a low profile and get on with the job but I was criticised by a member of the press for not giving interviews; they said that I was a role model and had a responsibility to [do so]. I was actually already doing a lot of mentoring and events work so the criticism hurt me. But it was also a useful realisation that I had a responsibility to let people know what I was doing. I was never very good at self-promotion, but in today’s world you must let them know that you are there – willing, competent and able.’ ●

About the interviewer

Diversity champion Desiree Artesi is a member of Thomas More Chambers and a Bencher of Inner Temple. Called to the Bar in St Lucia in 2004, she has been a member of the BSB Conduct Committee and the Bar Council’s Professional Practice Committee. She is now a member of Counsel’s Editorial Board.

Dame Linda Dobbs DBE
Dame Linda Dobbs DBE was called to the Bar in 1981, took silk in 1998 and elected as a Bencher in 2002. She chaired the Bar Council Professional Standards Committee and the Race Relations Committee. She was Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association in 2003 and was appointed a judge of the High Court, Queen’s Bench Division in 2004. She was Chairman of the Magistrates’ Committee at the Judicial Studies Board in 2006 and Founder and Chair of the International Committee of the Judicial College. She retired from the High Court in 2013.

First initiative from Judicial Diversity Forum
Lawyers from under-represented groups will be better supported to become judges, says the Judicial Diversity Forum, following the launch of its first initiative in April 2019. The programme offers insight into the realities of being a judge and ways to overcome perceived barriers, as well as covering a range of topics necessary to being a judge including judgecraft, ethics and resilience. See: bit.ly/diversity_paje

New: Black Barristers’ Network launch
The Black Barristers’ Network has been created to promote the growth of black barristers, with an inaugural event on 28 May. For pupils to practising barristers, it will offer support, visibility and community outreach via mentoring and social mobility schemes and events. If you would like to get involved, please do not hesitate to email: info@blackbarristersnetwork.org.uk