Black barrister calls out prejudice in UK court

The barrister says she was mistaken for a defendant by several staff members despite “wearing a black suit like everyone else”

Black barrister calls out prejudice in UK court

A Black barrister has called out the prejudice she experienced in a UK court.

On Wednesday, Alexandra Wilson, a criminal and family law barrister working with London-based 5SAH Chambers, took to Twitter to describe a day in court where she was mistaken –several times – for a defendant by court staff.

“There MUST be something about my face that says ‘not a barrister’ because I am literally wearing a black suit like everyone else,” she wrote in a tweet.

Wilson said she was first stopped by a security officer on her way into court, who asked for her name so he could look it up on the list of defendants. After she told him that she was a barrister, he apologised and guided her through security.

Wilson said she tried to shrug off the incident as “an innocent mistake,” but when she tried to enter the courtroom to speak to the prosecutor following a conversation with her client, she was once again stopped at the door by a member of the public, who told her that “only lawyers can go in,” this time mistaking Wilson for a journalist.

“The usher (the one person who recognised I was a barrister today) said to ignore her and to head on in,” Wilson said.

When Wilson opened the door, she was told by a solicitor/barrister to wait outside the court for the usher to sign her in – the same usher who was already beside Wilson. When Wilson reiterated that she was a barrister, the solicitor/barrister “looked embarrassed and said ‘oh, I see’,” Wilson said.

As Wilson headed towards the prosecutor, she said that the clerk “very loudly” told her to exit the courtroom and that the usher would be out shortly.

“Before I could respond she then asked if I was represented. I, AGAIN, explained that I’m a defence barrister trying to speak to the prosecutor. She looked at me, said ‘oh right, OK’ and continued with what she was doing,” Wilson said. “Thankfully, the prosecutor and I were eventually able to have our conversation and the case proceeded smoothly. This really isn’t OK though. I don’t expect to have to constantly justify my existence at work.”

Wilson filed a formal complaint, and said that a light needed to be shined on the situation she had gone through, “especially given so many people like me seem to experience the same thing.”

“Pretty much every black barrister I know has told me that they’ve experienced something similar. From junior barristers like me, to QCs. It makes us feel like imposters,” she said. “I’ve had so many white colleagues admit it’s NEVER happened to them. This is systemic. Change is needed.”

UK Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC said that Wilson’s experiences were “appalling,” and urged bodies like Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to step up.

“No one should be treated that way, whether in their workplace, including when turning up at court to represent their client, or anywhere else. With regret, I fear Alexandra’s experience is not a one-off,” Pinto said. “Many barristers have to put up with the prejudiced assumptions of others – Alexandra has done so with exemplary grace and patience. I am speaking directly with HMCTS, the senior judiciary and the CPS immediately, urging more to be done to stamp out this behaviour.”

HMCTS CEO Kevin Sadler apologised to Wilson, and said that an urgent investigation was underway.

“It is totally unacceptable behaviour and I’m investigating the role of my staff and contractors as a matter of urgency. This is not the behaviour anyone should expect,” he wrote in a tweet.

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