Sylvia Denman CBE was a barrister and academic whose commitment to equal opportunities and fighting racial discrimination ensured a lasting legacy. She most notably conducted the Denman Inquiry into institutional racism in the CPS, heralding much-needed changes.
Sylvia was born in Barbados in 1932 and came to Britain to study law at the London School of Economics. She pursued a career as a barrister, being called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1962. This was particularly impressive at a time when there were so few women and, in particular, so few black women at the Bar.
Sylvia began an academic career before joining the vanguard in the fight against discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s, serving as a member of both the Race Relations Board and Equal Opportunities Board. These were newly created bodies which enforced landmark legislation against racial and gender discrimination respectively.
Sylvia held multiple others positions over time. She was a member of the ethnic minorities advisory committee at the Judicial Studies Board, now the Judicial College. In this position, she played a key role in delivering the first race relations training programme in the country for circuit judges, from 1994 to 1996.
Meanwhile, the late 1990s formed a backdrop to increasing public awareness of institutional racism and a growing mistrust in the criminal justice system, mostly as a result of the Macpherson inquiry into the killing of Stephen Lawrence. Lawyers at the CPS began successfully challenging their employer before tribunals on grounds of race discrimination. Indeed, many black and minority ethnic employees at the organisation harboured a deep mistrust in their employer. All of this led to the director of public prosecutions asking Sylvia to lead an inquiry into race discrimination at the CPS.
The outcome, the Denman Report, was published in 2000. On all accounts, Sylvia conducted her inquiry with purposeful determination and without failing to consider equally the input of staff of all levels. As a testament to her uncompromising yet fair approach, the report’s strong criticisms and findings of institutional racism were firmly accepted by the director of public prosecutions.
The inquiry’s impact was major, with the CPS adopting a slew of policies aimed at implementing its recommendations. A key part of this was intensive diversity and equality training for all staff and greater accountability across the CPS for equality of treatment in the prosecution process. This helped start the process of making it a fairer place to work and rebuilding trust in the organisation, not least in the eyes of its employees.
To those that knew her, Sylvia was a person who did not suffer fools gladly but who always took the time to understand where people were coming from. Anny Tubbs, herself a lawyer and a former Chief Business Integrity Officer at Unilever, was both a personal friend of Sylvia’s and someone who looked up to her:
Sylvia was a family friend and the only lawyer I knew when I started down that route myself. She took me under her wing, nudging and nurturing me in equal measure. I used to joke that the reason I had many traineeship offers from law firms was because breakfast with her at the time had been more terrifying than any interview. She was very private about her work, but her sharp intellect and keen interest in others were apparent in all she did. She worked closely with equally engaged peers and leaves an important legacy for others to build on. She was a quiet yet determined trailblazer who deserves to be celebrated.
Even for those that didn’t know her personally, Sylvia will be remembered as a role model for channeling her deeply-held personal values into work that made huge strides in the battle against gender and racial discrimination in the UK.
Sylvia received a CBE for services to race relations and equal opportunities in 1994. She passed away in May 2019 at the age of 86.
Read Sylvia’s obituary
BBC’s Last Word, featuring Sylvia’s story