Ethnic minority lawyers including Jasvir Singh and Rehana Popal have faced discrimination.

by Nadeem Badshah

LEADING Asian lawyers have revealed the sexism and racism they have faced from clients and have called for more people in the industry to speak out.

The issue was highlighted by Rehana Popal, Britain’s only Afghan-born female barrister, who wrote on Twitter she was forced to drop a case after a solicitor told her the client wanted a “white male” representing them.

Popal, an immigration and civil law specialist barrister, said in November that she had lost six similar cases in two years.

Senior lawyers have disclosed they have had similar experiences due to their race or gender.

Barrister Jasvir Singh OBE told Eastern Eye: “Sadly, such discrimination is part and parcel of life at the Bar.

“As a self-employed barrister, you are in a professional service industry where it all rests on how the client sees you. If the client doesn’t like the look of you or thinks that you might be a liability to their case, however erroneous a belief that is, they will try to find somebody else to represent them.”

He added: “Racism and sexism is rife when it comes to how clients instruct barristers.

“I practise family law, and I’ve been sacked by clients for being a man, as many clients think a female barrister will be better received by judges in such cases.

“I’ve also been sacked for not being white and encountered racism from others at court.

“The only way that can be resolved is through societal change and also greater awareness about how the justice system works.”

Under the Solicitors Code of Conduct, a client “must not, in relation to instructing a barrister, discriminate against a barrister by subjecting the barrister to a detriment”.

Any breach of the rules should be reported by legal workers to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Amjad Malik, a solicitor, said he has come across incidents of clients preferring lawyers based on their gender and racial background, which breach the Equality Act 2010.

He told Eastern Eye: “Sometimes women prefer female barristers. In asylum cases, foreign clients prefer English barristers who are well versed in that area of law as for them Asian and female barristers may have a personal view on such applications.

“However, stereotyping and prejudices are discouraged by solicitors as normally firms are engaged with chambers for a number of years and they frequently instruct counsels of
experience and knowledge than race colour or creed. Same experiences are felt while choosing a solicitor. People who have bad experiences are put off by the firm’s name.”

Malik added: “Sometimes, if your firm carries an English name, clients asks if there is any English solicitor who can deal with their matter.

“Society has travelled a long way from racism, discrimination and prejudice and from the era of race relations act and sex discrimination act, and we can defeat them with a united
voice of rejecting any form of preconceived prejudice.”

Sobashni De Silva is a solicitor in the civil and commercial litigation department at Duncan Lewis Solicitors.

De Silva said: “In many instances counsel’s involvement is sought during court proceedings or advice in general.

“As opposed to the general perception from possibly a decade ago, that a barrister would be a white male, in general the current commercial client is more astute and has very little bias.

“[But] in some instances, we have had clients requesting female barristers as they perceive female barristers to be ‘feisty’ advocates.”

She added: “At all times the clients are directed to the appropriate strengths that should be embraced when appointing respective barristers and not be distracted by a false or misleading perception.

“It must be observed that the commercial bar is still predominantly white male, leaving little room for a valid observation; albeit more and more brilliant and talented female and ethnic groups are now beginning to enter the commercial sector of the bar.”

Research in 2016 found that female barristers are not reporting harassment and discrimination over fears that their careers will suffer.

The Bar Standards Board’s report showed two in five women experienced harassment. Of these, eight in 10 did not report their experiences.

The Bar Council, which represents the 15,000 practising barristers in England and Wales, responded to Popal’s claims by saying that it urged barristers “who do encounter discrimination… to remind the solicitors concerned of their professional obligations”.

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