Sibghat Kadri obituary

The barrister and anti-racism pioneer Sibghat Kadri, who has died aged 84 of cancer, was the first Muslim appointed Queen’s Counsel and also established the first multiracial chambers in Britain. His life, in and out of court, was dedicated to the pursuit of racial equality.

The barrister and Labour peer Lady (Helena) Kennedy QC protested alongside Kadri in his student days and co-defended a series of race cases with him in the 1980s, when minority communities were under attack from the National Front and stood their ground. She described him as a “fierce and fearless” lawyer who, when he was doing race cases, always said that he had “one foot in the dock”. Kennedy said: “He had experienced racism first hand and had a visceral way of communicating its poisonous effects. He was very clear that colonialism had left a deep imprint on our society.”

The son of Firasatullah Kadri and Tanwir Fatima, Sibghat (Sibghatullah) was born into a religious but liberal family in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. Two years after partition in 1947 they migrated to Karachi in West Pakistan. Leaving close friends behind, he found the move traumatic and described it as “losing his childhood”.

Sibghat shared a single room with his parents and seven siblings, and taught younger children in order to fund his own education. At the wish of his father, a religious scholar, who wanted him to become a scientist, he enrolled at Karachi University in 1954 to study chemistry and mathematics.

He became active in student politics, and in 1958 was arrested and detained for opposing the military regime of General Ayub Khan. He drafted his own petition of habeas corpus against his unlawful detention to the Pakistani high court and was released after six months. Nonetheless, he was expelled from university and deported to Hyderabad, in Sindh province.

A visit to London in 1960 to see his dying sister turned into a permanent move. His incarceration had ignited his interest in civil liberties and he resolved to follow his brother, who was a barrister, into the law. Although he did not have a degree, Inner Temple admitted him as a member on the basis that he should not be punished twice for his imprisonment.

He studied part time for the bar exams while working as a postman, a clerk for a mail order firm and a waiter at a curry house in Kilburn, north-west London. For BBC radio he became a regular producer and broadcaster for the Urdu service and a presenter of the Home service Asian programme.

In late 1968, Kadri began studying for his bar finals, and quickly sought to mobilise his fellow students against discrimination in legal education. His course privileged British university graduates over Commonwealth ones in several ways, and all would-be barristers had to declare if they intended to practise in the UK – which effectively forced immigrants on student visas to choose between disqualification and deportation.

The action forced the bar to allow the establishment of a students’ union at the Inns of Court, and Kadri was elected president of the Inner Temple Students’ Association. He was instrumental in setting up the bar reform committee, which organised the first ever sit-in at the Inns of Court school of law.

Called to the bar in 1969, at a time when there were fewer than 10 black or Asian barristers in Britain, and solicitors often refused to brief non-white barristers, Kadri applied for pupillage unsuccessfully for two years. In 1971 he was finally offered a pupillage with Lord (Anthony) Gifford at Cloisters, the chambers of John Platts-Mills.

On the first day of his second six-month pupillage, Kadri began a conspiracy trial at the Old Bailey that resulted in the acquittal of his Indian client. Such an achievement would normally have made a tenancy, or permanent position in chambers, almost certain.

Despite making numerous applications, Kadri could not get a tenancy and in 1973 found a typically radical solution, by setting up his own chambers at 11 King’s Bench Walk. In 1970, he had been a founder of the African-Asian and Caribbean Lawyers Association (renamed the Society of Black Lawyers in 1981). He was also instrumental in setting up the race relations committee of the bar council.

He developed a practice defined by his commitment to equal rights, becoming a leading civil rights lawyer and an authority on immigration, Sharia and race relations. In the early 1980s, he defended people accused of taking part in the Bristol and Brixton riots, as well as the Bradford Twelve, charged with preparing petrol bombs for what they claimed was to defend themselves against attacks from white skinhead gangs and National Front members. The case established that self-defence could include community defence.

Defending a group alleged to have taken part in the Bristol riots, Kadri used a centuries-old procedure known as a “peremptory challenge” to request a more racially diverse jury. He called for the resignation of the master of the rolls, Lord Denning, when, in his book What Next in the Law (1982), Denning complained that the defence team had “packed” the jury with “coloured” jurors, who he said often came from countries “where bribery and graft are accepted as an integral part of life, and where stealing is a virtue so long as you are not found out”. The book was withdrawn and reprinted without the offending passage. Denning retired soon afterwards and later apologised for his remarks.

As legal adviser to the Pakistan Workers’ Association, at a rally in April 1970 in protest over the fatal stabbing of Tosir Ali, a Bengali immigrant in the East End of London, Kadri reminded the crowd that the law allowed people to defend themselves. He told a Daily Telegraph reporter that while the victims of racist violence were not looking for trouble, “they will be ready to deal with it”.

Judges, said Kennedy, were often wary of Kadri’s “pugilistic style” but the senior judge Sir Henry Brooke saw beyond it and encouraged him to apply to join the ranks of Queen’s Counsel. He took silk in 1989. Kennedy said: “It was such a great moment when a radical like Sibghat received this recognition. It meant the legal profession was at last listening to his lessons about the need for law to embrace difference.”

Eight years later he was made a bencher of the Inner Temple, and last year he was chairman and plenary speaker of the Inn’s first annual round table series Race and the Legal Profession. He told young barristers that discrimination has not vanished and the “struggle continues”.

While studying for his bar exams, he met Carita Idman, an au pair from Helsinksi working in London, and they married in 1963. She survives him, along with their children, Sadakat and Maria, and two grandchildren.

Sibhat (Sibghatullah) Kadri, barrister and race equality campaigner, born 23 April 1937; died 2 November 2021


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