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Court boss apologises to black barrister mistaken for defendant three times

Written by on 24 September 2020

The acting head of the UK’s court service has apologised to a black barrister who was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day.

Alexandra Wilson, a criminal and family barrister, tweeted she was “absolutely exhausted” after a security officer, a lawyer and a clerk at the court failed to recognise she worked in the legal profession.

Kevin Sadler, the acting chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), apologised to Ms Wilson and said it was “totally unacceptable behaviour” and he would be investigating the role of his staff in the incident.

Ms Wilson, the author of In Black And White, a memoir of her career so far, said when she arrived at court on Wednesday the security officer first asked for her name so he could find it on the list of defendants.

“I explained I was a barrister. He apologised and guided me through security,” she said.

“At this point I tried to shrug it off as an innocent mistake.”

After meeting with her client, she then tried to enter the courtroom to discuss the case with the prosecutor.

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She said: “At the door a member of the public told me not to go into the courtroom. I asked why and she said because it’s a court, only lawyers can go in. She said I was a journalist.

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

“As I opened the door, a solicitor/barrister said I needed to wait outside court and said the usher (who, btw, was next to me) would come outside and sign me in and the court would call me in for my case.

“I explained I’m a barrister. She looked embarrassed and said ‘oh. I see’.

“She turned back around and I walked towards the prosecutor, ready to have our conversation. Before I got there the clerk, VERY loudly, told me to leave the courtroom and said the usher would be out shortly.

“Before I could respond she then asked if I was represented.

“I, AGAIN, explained that I am a defence barrister trying to speak to the prosecutor. She looked at me, said ‘oh right, ok’ and continued with what she was doing.”

Following the incident, Ms Wilson said she has lodged a formal complaint: “This really isn’t ok though. I don’t expect to have to constantly justify my existence at work.”

Her tweets went viral, leading to accusations of racism within the UK’s court system.

Mr Sadler responded to Ms Wilson’s Twitter thread and said: “I’m investigating the role of my staff and contractors as a matter of urgency. This is not the behaviour anyone should expect and certainly does not reflect our values.”

Amanda Pinto QC, chair of the Bar Council, called the incident “appalling”.

She said: “With regret, I fear Alexandra’s experience is not a one-off. 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.

“There is more to do to change the perception of the Bar, but that is no excuse for the kind of attitudes and remarks described. We are not all white, middle class men.”

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It comes after official figures revealed people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are less likely to be successful when applying to become a judge, and only 9% are senior barristers.

Last week, a Ministry of Justice report found BAME people “over-represented in applications for judicial appointment” but are “less likely to be successful”.

Industry leaders have called for the legal profession to diversify to better represent the public.