I never wanted to be a barrister. Yet, as a child of immigrants in the sixties who witnessed the discrimination and racism endured by minorities across the country, the pursuit of justice, fairness and equality became my obsession from an improbably young age. It’s just that the law and the legal profession never presented themselves to me as the obvious route by which those ideals might be achieved. On the contrary, to my impressionable mind, the legal system, the Bar and the Judiciary, merely reflected and reinforced the privileges and elitism prevalent in wider society. They were part of the problem, obstacles rather than catalysts to hasten the changes I believed our country desperately needed. Justice seemed far from blind.

Values forged in childhood usually remain an indelible part of who we become. I am no exception. Raised by a nurse and by a schoolteacher, I understood from a young age that public service is an intrinsic good and that personal advancement should never be achieved at the expense of our moral responsibility to the community around us. Home was a town called Southall in West London, poor economically but extraordinarily rich in its tapestry of colours, religions and ethnicities; a veritable melting pot in which brown, black and white neighbours mingled easily and learned each other’s habits in a spirit of generosity and mutual respect.

The racism we experienced came mainly from outside. In 1979 and 1981 we resisted violent incursions from the National Front and other fascists who sought to intimidate and frighten us in a futile effort to disrupt the racial harmony we had nurtured. Confronted by a hostile and complicit police force, I quickly realised in my teens that the law conferred less than universal protection. But it was the remarkable courage of my community that instilled into me a confidence and resilience that proved indispensable in later years.

I consider myself immensely fortunate to have been educated in the state system which included a non-selective comprehensive. Though we lacked the resources enjoyed in the independent sector, we thrived on the fertile interaction between students from a variety of social backgrounds, many of whom came from impoverished families. The ability to engage and empathise with such a diverse cohort of individuals prepared me well for the challenges that lay ahead at the Criminal Bar.

I enjoyed schooling enough to win a place to read PPE at Oxford, although it wasn’t easy navigating my way through the entrance exams and interviews bereft of guidance from teachers with experience of getting pupils into Oxbridge. This was the early 1980s when programmes to help state school children into elite universities were non-existent. It was during my undergraduate years that I was first exposed to the social and cultural advantages bestowed by an affluent upbringing. Among my contemporaries were the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

As will become apparent, my path into law was anything but linear; indeed, it was peppered with detours and diversions along the way. After graduating, I worked as a policy and research officer for my local authority in Ealing advising councillors on the provision of education and housing services. I then returned to full-time study and completed a Masters in Politics of the World Economy at the LSE with ambitions to join the United Nations to pursue development work in Asia and Africa. I subsequently applied for an elusive scholarship to undertake a PhD and, hedging my bets, managed to secure a full-time position with the BBC as a senior researcher. I imagined working my way up the Corporation with a view to hosting Newsnight, relishing the prospect of cross-examining slippery politicians. In the event, the scholarship offer landed on my doormat and, with some regret, I resigned from the BBC and started my doctoral research. Within a year, I realised I had picked the wrong horse.

Disenchanted with the direction steered by my research supervisor, I took time out to contemplate an alternative vocation. Everyone has at least one major epiphany in life. The realisation that I might be well suited to the Bar was mine. So, at the age of 25 I looked critically at the skill sets I had acquired thus far and how they might best be deployed. The lure of a career as a criminal advocate felt irresistible. As someone who revelled in debate and argument, and driven by a deep-seated belief that impecuniosity should never thwart the right to justice, I set my compass and embarked upon a fascinating journey.

Crossing the Rubicon from social science to law was both challenging and exhilarating. Learning an entirely new discipline reignited my intellectual curiosity and appetite for studying. But as the only aspiring barrister amongst a brigade of hopeful solicitors on my law conversion course I sometimes wondered if they knew something I didn’t. It wasn’t until I was ensconced among my fellow students at Bar school that I was finally persuaded that life as a lawyer might bring me the existential security I had been seeking.

Having found my calling, over the ensuing three decades, I threw myself into my work with all the zealotry of a convert. Like so many of my ilk at the Criminal Bar, my days, weeks and months were consumed by a gruelling regime of relentless case preparation, court hearings and trials. Time became elastic as I squeezed an ever-increasing list of professional and extracurricular commitments into my diary. Trite though it may sound, life as a barrister gave me a sense of purpose and belonging, not least because of the richness of the relationships I cultivated with the men and women whose brilliance and industry spurred me on.

Each milestone brought enhanced feelings of fulfilment, yet the lingering ambivalence I had harboured towards the legal system since my youth was never entirely abated. That is why, throughout my years in practice, I have pushed so hard to open our profession to those who, like me, could never have imagined themselves in robes. Promoting the virtues of equality, diversity and inclusion became a mission through my committee work with the Bar Council and one that I shall continue following my recent election for a three-year term.

Leading the Criminal Bar last year during the most intense period in its history carried a huge responsibility. Throughout my engagements with government, the Judiciary, and a range of representatives of the Bar, I focused attention on the genuine threat to our long-term survival resulting from alarming levels of attrition, itself driven by a catastrophic decline in real incomes. Such regressive changes put at risk the hard-won gains we had made in moulding the Bar into an inclusive space for women, minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who had sacrificed so much to take their place amongst our ranks.

Taking every opportunity through television, radio, the newspapers and social media, we successfully moved the dial on public opinion to win sympathy, if not admiration, for the immeasurable contribution we make to the delivery of justice. And by seizing control of the narrative, we won the significant increases in legal aid fees that had eluded us over the last two decades. I finished my term as Chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) knowing that the dispute had generated an unprecedented degree of unity in our profession and that our Association was more democratic, open and accountable to its members who had been consulted at every stage and who, through a series of ballots, had rightly been given the final say in determining our course.

Stepping down from the CBA, I have been able to resume the many other interests I have pursued outside the Bar. These started when I was elected to serve as a Councillor while still a pupil, acting as Chair of Governors at my old primary school for some 21 years, being a spokesperson for my local community in a recent major environmental campaign, and promoting diversity through my previous role as President of the Society of Asian Lawyers.

I have tried to remain faithful to my favourite motto, ‘we rise by lifting others’, by mentoring scores of aspiring barristers, speaking at university campuses across the country to encourage students to consider a career at the Bar, and supervising pupils in chambers. I’ve also enjoyed recording podcasts and webinars to spotlight the work we do, and participated in a series of crime documentaries to give an insider’s perspective on murder cases that have gained national attention.

But my greatest passion remains the teaching of advocacy to the next generation of barristers, whether as part of my contribution as a Bencher at Lincoln’s Inn, internationally with the Inns of Court College of Advocacy, or with the South Eastern Circuit at Keble College. I will always champion courtroom advocacy as an art form that must be learned, practised and honed because the reputation of our profession depends upon the respect we earn as exceptional communicators. Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the CBA action last year is that sometimes we must be ready to use that same advocacy to defend ourselves and not just our clients.

In recognition of his work as Chair of the Criminal Bar 2021-2022, Jo was awarded Outstanding Achievement of the Year at the 2023 Modern Law Awards. His other awards include Criminal Lawyer of the Year at the Asian Legal Awards 2022, Lawyer of the Year in the British Sikh Awards 2022 and Diversity & Inclusion (Highly Commended) in the Chambers UK Bar Awards 2020.