Linda Dobbs: “Diversity fatigue is the greatest challenge at the moment.”

Published 5th July 2016

This article is based on the video interview with Linda Dobbs which can be found here.

I came to the UK when I was seven in the 1950s to stay with my English family, and I was usually the only person of colour in the area. I would have names thrown at me by the kids and I remember a great sense of injustice about that, because I used to think well they don’t know me. There was a great anger at the injustice so I’ve always been somebody who’s been slightly angry.

My family were saying that I must follow my father’s footsteps, go into the law, but I was not going to do what I was told. I was going to do what I wanted to do so initially I did music. I went to the University of Edinburgh and I realised once I got there that I didn’t have the necessary dedication to get anywhere in music. My peers spent every spare moment doing their scales and I was out playing sport and at the pub or a member of the dramatic society. I hate to admit it but it wasn’t in a way my decision to do law, I sort of fell into it because somebody said ‘have you heard about this new degree which you can combine Russian and law?’ and I’d done a little bit of Russian at school and I loved it, so I went on to do it at the University of Surrey and it was a unique degree in those days.

Then I went to the London School of Economics and did an LLM, and a PhD so academia was where I thought I would stay, but my feeling was that academics were too stuck in their own ivory towers and that the teaching of law ought to be out in the streets.

It was scary joining the bar in 1981. There were two other female tenants, which was quite a lot in those days. It was not as easy as a woman, not least because the older Members of Chambers still favoured the chaps. The clerks in those days, and some of the instructing solicitors didn’t want a woman, most likely because their clients didn’t want a woman. Clients made it quite clear that they didn’t want a woman, there was one chap up for drink driving and I had a specialist niche practice that I’d worked up on drink driving. I turned up and he took one look at me and said ‘I told the solicitor I didn’t want a woman’. I said ‘Well, it’s up to you, you can go ahead by yourself, or you can have me represent you and I do have a certain expertise and have good results on drink driving’. So in the end with great reluctance he went ahead with me, he was acquitted unjustifiably, and instead of saying thank you he storms off saying ‘I’m going to ring that solicitor and tell them how dare they ignore my instructions’. It slightly amused me. I remember some comment about the Attorney General taking on a token black and that I was just a coconut, and I didn’t know what that meant in those days.

What bothered me more, I think it was a test, where the Senior Clerk gave me a brief and it was to represent a couple of National Front youngsters who had thrown a brick through an Asian shopkeeper’s window. So I went and said ‘do you think this is a good idea’ and the Clerk said ‘don’t worry Miss Dobbs, just do Al Jolson in reverse’. Al Jolson was a singer who used to black himself up and have white lips so he was saying you know get a bit of tennis white and they won’t know the difference. I spent time with these two young lads and I was terrified, I was a youngster at the time. It wasn’t pleasant but if you got too upset about it then you weren’t able to do your job properly. It was difficult to complain about things in those days, there were no procedures, no equality code. None of it was recorded, so to prove that you were being discriminated against was very difficult. One solicitor used to send me work when I was a pupil and said ‘why aren’t you available’’ and I said well I was, but the Clerk had been tippexing my name out and giving work to the male pupil they wanted to be taken on as a Member of Chambers.

I was always reluctant to go onto the Bench, I think it was partly a confidence issue that I wouldn’t be able to do it or that people would think I’d only been appointed because I was a black woman. I was appointed in 2004 to be a High Court Judge, the first person of an ethnic minority. I thought that somebody’s got to start the ball rolling and I was trying to do that and change the lack of diversity. I was a little optimistic because it took seven years before the next person was appointed to the High Court Bench from a minority ethnic background, which is rather disappointing. It’s been very slow indeed and disappointing. People feel that being a High Court Judge wasn’t for them because you had to go out on circuit, which nobody wants to do if they’ve got family and kids and things. There is a combination of things, and also a lack of role models, because if you don’t see people like yourself there then you don’t want to be there. When I had my first Judge’s meeting I just looked around at the sea of male faces, people don’t realise that it can be lonely. Lady Justice Hallett was somebody who I always turned to if I had concerns or I wanted help, and in Chambers there was a senior female silk who I turned to but, being the first, who do you look to?

I think diversity fatigue is the greatest challenge at the moment. People think we have done diversity, but actually we are not yet in the mainstream when it comes to diversity, especially in the senior judiciary. At the present rate it will take 50 years for there to be gender parity. One has to apply the law coolly and without passion and therefore your gender is totally irrelevant. Of course women minority ethnic people bring something to the table, but not just because they’re women, because of their experience. I advise young people to get themselves a mentor, I mentor a lot of young people, and that they should do a self-analysis and know themselves really well. I’m proud that I feel I have made a difference to a lot of young people, it’s all about unlocking potential.