More than 20 Asian lawyers have come forward to say they have been mistaken for defendants in court, in the same week that the black barrister Alexandra Wilson said the same had happened to her three times in a day.
At a webinar for the Society of Asian Lawyers (SAL)attended by 86 lawyers, 33% said they had at times been mistaken for the defendant and that this happened despite them being appropriately dressed.
SAL members said it was very disappointing to hear what had happened to Wilson but that sadly it was not a new phenomenon.
Ninety-two percent of lawyers attending the seminar said they had been asked by fellow legal professionals: ““Where are you really from?”
SAL has called on the Law Society, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Council to lead from the front in tackling systemic racism in the legal profession and to effect real change.
One female Asian lawyer who attended the webinar told colleagues that when she was introduced to a white male colleague in a professional capacity he said to her: “Oooh, I like curry.”
Chamali Fernando, an SAL committee member and a barrister of 18 years’ experience, currently at Nexa Law, who specialises in civil and commercial litigation, said it was very worrying that Wilson had been asked three times in one day if she was a defendant.
“The fact that this is happening in a profession where the practitioners are trained in fairness is shocking. It is clear to us that racism still exists in the legal profession. There is under-representation in chambers, courtrooms and boardrooms of black and minority ethnic lawyers,” she said.
Following Wilson’s decision to speak out about the way she had been stereotyped and discriminated against, more lawyers have come forward to describe their experiences of racism in the course of their work.
Antonia Kim Charles of MTC Solicitors, a black female criminal defence solicitor, said that “too many times to count” when she attended a police station to represent a client who had been arrested, if the client was young and black, police officers would say to her: “Oh you must be the mum of the person we’ve arrested.”
“It makes me and other colleagues who have experienced the same thing very angry,” she said. “I don’t believe our white colleagues are treated in this way. Sometimes when I attend a police station and correct a police officer who assumes I’m my client’s ‘mum’ and explain that I’m in fact their solicitor, even though I attend wearing a smart suit, they still don’t believe me and ask me to produce ID such as my passport.”
Katie Lynch, the wife of the black criminal barrister Leon-Nathan Lynch, wrote a widely shared Facebook post in June, saying: “People often assume he is the defendant (despite being in a suit) purely because he is a young black man and this mistake is even made by counsel.” She added that he had been stopped and searched by police seven times and unlawfully arrested once.