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Investigation launched, apologies made after black barrister mistaken for defendant three times in a day

England and Wales courts head apologises after Alexandra Wilson describes having to ‘constantly justify existence’

This was reported on Guardian by Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent @owenbowcott on Thu 24 Sep 2020 14.13 BST and by BBC London on 24th Sep 2020.

Alexandra Wilson said she was ‘absolutely exhausted’after what had happened. Photograph: MMLA

A black barrister mistaken for a defendant three times in one day has received an apology from court officials.

Criminal and family lawyer Alexandra Wilson, 25, said the experience had left her “absolutely exhausted”.She lodged a formal complaint after being challenged by a security officer, a solicitor and a clerk.Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) apologised for the “totally unacceptable behaviour”.Ms Wilson, from Essex, said she had attended the magistrates’ court – where barristers’ traditional wigs and gowns are not usually worn – on Wednesday.Upon arrival, she said a security officer asked for her name and then searched for it on a list of defendants.”I explained I was a barrister. He apologised and guided me through security,” Ms Wilson said.After meeting her client, she tried to enter a courtroom to discuss the case with the prosecutor.”Another barrister or solicitor sitting at the back of the court told me to go outside and wait and to sign in with the usher for my case.”I explained again I was a barrister and she looked awfully embarrassed and said ‘I see’.

Alexandra Wilson
image captionAlexandra Wilson, who specialises in family and criminal law, said she did not expect to “constantly justify my existence at work”

“At this point as I was already pretty annoyed, but I went over to the prosecutor and then the clerk told me very loudly to get out of the court room because I had to wait for my case to come on.”I was nearly in tears, and I said again, ‘I am a defence barrister’, and she nodded her head and turned back to her computer.”In addition, she said, a member of the public thought she was a journalist and told her “only lawyers can go in” the courtroom.”All of that in one day, it made me feel exhausted,” she said.”This really isn’t ok… I don’t expect to have to constantly justify my existence at work.”

Alexandra Wilson
image captionEarlier this week, Alexandra Wilson, author of In Black and White, criticised Amazon for selling hats with the slogan “Black Lives Don’t Matter”

She told the BBC she was “quite often” mistaken for a defendant but never so often in one day, and her experience had made her realise “it’s not nice being a defendant in court”.”Everyone should be treated with respect,” she said.”The fact I was shouted at to get out of court isn’t ok for defendants either.”HMCTS acting chief executive, Kevin Sadler, said: “I’m very sorry about your experience at court yesterday – it is totally unacceptable behaviour.”He said he would be investigating the role of his staff and contractors “as a matter of urgency”.”This is not the behaviour anyone should expect and certainly does not reflect our values,” he added.Ms Wilson said she was “grateful” for the apology and hoped it would lead “to some real change”.

The head of the courts service in England and Wales has apologized to a black barrister after she was stopped and mistaken for a defendant three times in one day at court.

Kevin Sadler, the acting chief executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, has condemned the “totally unacceptable behaviour” and promised to investigate the complaint made by Alexandra Wilson, who specialises in criminal and family cases.

Wilson, whose chambers are near the Old Bailey in the City of London, tweeted this week that she had gone to a court and was repeatedly misidentified as a defendant rather than as a lawyer. She is the author of In Black And White, which highlights the problem of racism in the courts.

Wilson said that she was “absolutely exhausted” after what had happened and that “a light needs to be shone on this”. Her tweets triggered fresh accusations about racism in the courts.

Wilson said she had initially been stopped at the entrance by a security guard and “asked me what my name was so he could ‘find [my] name on the list’ (the list of defendants)”. She thought that might have been an “innocent mistake”.

Then a member of the public, who thought she was a journalist, told her not to go into a courtroom and to wait for the usher to sign her in for her case. She had to explain that she was the barrister.

Inside the courtroom, a barrister or solicitor told her to wait outside and see the usher. Wilson explained that she was a lawyer.As a judge, I can see the racism embedded in the systemPeter HerbertRead more

She then approached the prosecutor. Wilson added: “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.”

For at least the third time, she had to declare that she was a defence barrister. “This really isn’t ok …” she tweeted. “I don’t expect to have to constantly justify my existence at work.”

In response, Sadler tweeted: “I‘m very sorry about your experience at court yesterday – 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 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 [Crown Prosecution Service] immediately, urging more to be done to stamp out this behaviour.

“The barristers’ profession is always striving to be more representative of the society it serves. 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.”

The Society of Asian lawyers tweeted that it held a meeting earlier week about racial prejudice in the legal profession: “From our polls on Monday for our event one third of lawyers attending who appear in court have been mistaken for the defendant. Enough is enough.”

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

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