HE EARNED a double first in law at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was named Barrister of the Year by The Lawyer magazine.
One of the most impressive silks of his generation, at just 39, Sir Rabinder Singh became the youngest judge to sit in the high court. His rise to the top of the judiciary continued last year when he was sworn in as a court of appeal judge – the first non-white person to occupy such a position – and appointed by the Queen to the Privy Council. Not bad for a working-class Sikh boy from Bristol, though he might not be entirely happy with the epithets.
Now officially styled the Rt Hon Lord Justice Singh, he has expressed irritation at the press’s frequent references to his ethnicity and fixation on the turban he wears instead of a wig. On the reaction to being appointed Britain’s first Sikh judge in 2011, he told Law Society Gazette (LSG): “I have always tried to be a role model by the work I do. I haven’t said, ‘I’m a Sikh barrister, look at what I do.’ I’ve just said ‘look at what I do’. Everyone can see what I am. I just do not understand this fixation of identifying people with reference to their religious or ethnic identity.”
Born in 1964 in Delhi, Singh’s parents came to Britain with little more than the contents of their suitcases. Raised in a poor neighbourhood, his academic ability was recognised early on, which led to him winning a local authority scholarship to Bristol Grammar School.
The dream of being a barrister was forged while he was young, through watching courtroom dramas and reading Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the American south, in which Atticus Finch represents a black man charged with the rape of a white woman. “Atticus Finch talks about the law as the great equaliser. It’s clear he is a lawyer who regards himself as having a vocation.”
Singh followed up Cambridge by doing an LLM at the University of California, Berkeley, but his passage to the bar was temporarily stalled by shortage of funds. He solved this by teaching law at the University of Nottingham for two years, before winning a scholarship to attend the Inns of Court in 1988. He was called to the bar the following year.
Justifiably proud of his achievements, one glass-ceiling reference he welcomes has to do with his socio-economic background. As a barrister, Singh had more than 35 highly significant cases in the House of Lords and supreme court, a remarkable professional record. Yet as a law student he was discouraged from even studying for the bar in the first place because it was thought that to succeed in that profession you needed to be middle class.
“I didn’t let it put me off or regard it as dispiriting. Far from it; it only made me more determined,” he has said.
Singh’s reputation stems largely from his work in the fields of public and human rights law. He has been associated with many high-profile cases, including representing CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) in 2002 when he unsuccessfully sought a ruling that it would be illegal for the UK to go to war with Iraq without securing a fresh UN Security Council resolution; and the Belmarsh case in 2004, when he successfully represented Liberty in the House of Lords against the indefinite detention without charge or trial of non-nationals suspected of terrorism.
In 2006, he won a case on behalf of nine Afghan asylum seekers who had hijacked a plane to enter Britain, arguing that they should have been given permission to stay in the UK on human rights grounds.
Some of the cases Singh has successfully worked on have led to changes in the law. In the Ghaidan case of 2004 and the Rodriguez case of 2009, judgements obtained in the House of Lords and Privy Council resulted in previous decisions being overturned and new precedents being set requiring equal treatment for gay couples.
The anti-establishment image associated with much of his work at the bar belies the fact that he has acted on behalf of the government in a number of landmark judgements. For example, in Hirst v United Kingdom, he successfully argued against the right of prisoners to vote, although the decision under domestic law was later overturned in the European Court of Human Rights.
Frequently described as low key and unassuming, in 2005, under the headline ‘I am a lawyer, not a bomber’, Singh published in The Guardian an open letter to a man who had “sat opposite” him on a train, movingly describing how it felt to be the object of fear because you look “Asian or Muslim”. The letter began: “Yesterday I sat on my commuter train and you were already sitting there in the seat opposite. Your eyes were closed. You must have been tired. Then you opened your eyes and you saw me. You got up and moved to the next carriage. Perhaps you wanted some privacy or did not want to disturb me with a mobile phone call. Or perhaps you were afraid of me…”
A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts with a lifelong fondness for Greek poetry, Singh was once asked in an interview what alternative profession he might have chosen if he hadn’t been able to follow law. He replied: “One thing I would have liked to be is an academic specialising in Greek poetry. I love Greek poetry. I can read Ancient Greek but never had the chance to develop my interest.”
Outside of his work as a barrister and judge, Singh has a distinguished academic career. In the late 1990s, he was a visiting fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and a visiting professor of law at the London School of Economics from 2003-2009. In 2016, he was elected as a visiting fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.
Public positions have included being appointed by then foreign secretary Robin Cook in 2000 to monitor standards of fairness around UK border entry refusals. He was also a member of the panel commissioned in the wake of the race row which erupted on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 when Jade Goody and her fellow housemates were accused of racist bullying towards Indian actress Shilpa Shetty.
In September, Singh was made president of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal by the Queen. He said: “I am absolutely delighted to have been appointed president of the Tribunal and look forward to my new role and guiding its important work.”