Paula Rhone-Adrien: “I Am a Barrister and I Am a Victim of Racism”
As we see the end of Black History Month, we hear Paula’s story on racism in the UK’s legal sector, especially at the Bar.
I think some members of our profession are racist. There I said it!
Now before you get too upset, please, I ask you to bear with me. This article is not about sullying this great profession’s name. This article is not about shouting that all white middle class men are racist (or any other entire group for that matter). On the contrary I want this article to leave you feeling empowered; empowered to have those uncomfortable discussions you were always too fearful to engage in; empowered to step in when you felt you couldn’t; and most importantly, empowered to speak out when you felt you were treated less favourably, but felt unable to.
I’ve been at the Bar for over 20 years and in that time I have suffered racism from my peers. Sometimes the bullying was so bad that I suffered stress-related illnesses. I was told that I had missed out on opportunities because of my colour. I was told to change my hair (I was wearing it in braids at the time) because it looked unprofessional, messy and was not the “right fit” for a member of the Bar….and I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been asked to leave rooms at Court – not just the advocates’ room, but a room that the Barristers in my case had gathered in to discuss their position – because I was supposed to be the social worker, the client… basically anyone who wasn’t the Barrister.
I was intrigued by the Lammy Review, which focussed on the outcomes for people of colour coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
Who did I take my complaint to? No one. When a solicitor who was leaving the profession told me with tears in her eyes, that she had on more than one occasion been asked to forcefully negotiate my fees down so the white client would be prepared to use me, who did I raise a grievance with? No one.
Why? Because I was fearful. The people who approached me to raise the fact that they thought I was a victim of racism, that they had been party to a conversation that had made them feel uncomfortable or witnessed behaviour that concerned them, they told me they would support me. However, I was too scared. I wanted a simple life. I just wanted to be a great Barrister, to forge my dazzling career and to ignore the fact that these things were happening to me. However, as we all know, the problem will remain until you deal with it…and it did, but now I am dealing with it and I want others to know that it is possible to speak out without losing out.
We know from the experience of the Barrister, Alexander Wilson that Court staff clearly still have a long way to go before recognising that a person of colour can be a Barrister, as opposed to the defendant.
I was intrigued by the Lammy Review, which focussed on the outcomes for people of colour coming into contact with the criminal justice system. Why? Because there was no specific reference to the question of whether a person of colour thought that their representative may have been racist. There is reference to the part lawyers play as pieces of a bigger puzzle, but it seemed like such an obvious question that was left unanswered.
We know from the experience of the Barrister, Alexander Wilson that Court staff clearly still have a long way to go before recognising that a person of colour can be a Barrister, as opposed to the defendant. However, my unfortunate experience has taught me that the people who members of the public place their faith in, may, at a minimum, not care about the outcome for that client, because they are a person of colour, or at its worst, actively fail to perform to the best of their ability. How could the Barristers who treated me so unfavourably, or asked me to leave rooms because they assumed I could not have been the Barrister, then leave that room to passionately take up their client’s case, when that client may have been the same colour as me?
This is happening to me, some 20 years on, even though there has been a clear push by the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board over the last five years to offer expert training in equality and diversity and to provide victims or those who have observed such unlawful behaviour the anonymous opportunity to report such.
In my opinion, it is fear that has permitted racism’s continued existence.
It’s true I may have been the first Barrister to go public with my unfortunate experience, but I find it hard to believe that I am the only one to have suffered. The Bar Standards Board published its own research undertaken by YouGov on 12th October 2020. The qualitative work found “bullying, discrimination and harassment remain an issue at the Bar”. The report referenced a “culture of fear” regarding reporting matters, which sadly I have sympathy for, as it took me over 20 years to say something fearing the impact on my career and the potential for victimisation.
I recently wrote to the Bar Council about my experiences and was incredibly impressed at the immediate response of Amanda Pinto QC and Sam Mercer to tackle my concerns and address my campaign seeking compulsory equality and diversity training commencing from the acceptance onto the Bar Vocational Course, to one’s ongoing continuing professional development at the Bar.
Clearly, giving us an option hasn’t worked and we need to be forced to engage in the impressive training that is on offer.
George Floyd is not the first black man to die at the hands of an arresting officer and whatever you may think of the politics behind the Black Lives Matter movement this year, clearly the world has woken up to the plight of injustice that those of colour still encounter every day.
In my opinion, it is fear that has permitted racism’s continued existence. It has moved around us, effortlessly, feeding off our ignorance, knowing it will be unquestioned or unspoken of and go unchallenged by the many, because its job is to divide and conquer. I and many of my black colleagues roll our eyes or shrug our shoulders when we encounter that every day throwaway racist comments: “Sorry, where are you from?…No, I mean where are you really from?”; “No, I didn’t mean you, you’re one of the good ones”; or, “But you do know that George Floyd was a drug addict, don’t you…”.
Making diversity and equality training compulsory will force us all to confront our fears around race and enable us to have uncomfortable discussions in a safe and informed setting.
I was recently asked by a white male, whether he could refer to my hair as ‘afro hair’. When I told him that he could, because that is what it was, he was genuinely shocked. He thanked me and told me that he would have never asked me this question before for FEAR of insulting me. I have encountered a number of white people, like the solicitor I discussed earlier, who have felt fearful.
Making diversity and equality training compulsory will force us all to confront our fears around race and enable us to have uncomfortable discussions in a safe and informed setting. We hold ourselves out to be the best providers of legal services from around the world. However, to retain that impressive standing we must confront our weaknesses and strive to make them stronger. Racism is a weakness and supporting the campaign for compulsory equality and diversity training will inevitably make us stronger.
Paula advises on all aspects of family law, but specialises in Ancillary Relief (Divorce and settling the financial arrangements) and parents/family members who are in disagreement over how a child should live their life or where a child should live. Paula’s decades of experience at the Bar are clear evidence of her strong track record for customer satisfaction and that she has earned the respect of Judges and those who instruct her.
 David Lammy, the Labour MP was asked to undertake a review in 2017 by David Cameron, of the experience of person’s of colour coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
 Ms Wilson received an apology from The chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service after she was identified as the defendant on three separate occasions in one day.
 Talk to spot – The online anonymous tool for Barristers to report any type of inappropriate behaviour https://www.barcouncil.org.uk/support-for-barristers/equality-diversity-and-inclusion/talk-to-spot.html