“Racism is alive and well and living in Tower Hamlets, in Westminster and, yes, sometimes in the judiciary”. These are the words of prominent black barrister and chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, Peter Herbert OBE.
Mr Herbert spoke up about the existence of some racism within the judiciary. He did so in a speech he made at a ‘Defend Democracy’ rally in Stepney, east London in April 2015.
Herbert said he referred to his role as a judge during the speech, only in response to previous remarks at the meeting that the judiciary was all white and middle class.
Subsequently, the Ministry of Justice for race discrimination recommended that a formal warning be made against him for the remarks. In November 2015, pressure was applied to Herbert to voluntarily refrain from sitting as a judge.
In March 2016, he decided to sue the Ministry of Justice for suspending him. He believed the investigatory process into his speech had been discriminatory.
Mr Herbert added that before lodging the case he had made conciliation attempts with the ministry but had not received a response.
Several black lawyers and campaigners in the UK and overseas are backing Mr Herbert in the action he is taking against the Ministry of Justice.
A disciplinary panel has recommended that Mr Herbert should receive both an apology and “formal advice” – a dressing down – after the matter had not been handled well. The recommendation is to the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor.
While Mr Herbert welcomed the recommendation, he told TNT that his aim is to change the way in which suspensions are made in the judicial system. He is appealing against the findings of the Judicial Conduct Investigation Office panel. The basis of his appeal is that it racially discriminated against him.
The suspension against Mr Herbert is still ongoing and a final decision will be made in a month’s time. He told TNT “I’m considering other legal avenues, defending on their final decision”.
There is a crisis
Mr Herbert also mentioned that in early January, “a judge swore at a defendant after the defendant swore at her. They held that it was not misconduct; it was only inappropriate but she should just be given advise”.
Juxtaposed against Mr Herbert’s suspension, the above case facilitates his case. It does so in that “we [black people] always get the extreme penalty and findings”, whilst white people tend not to.
Lee Jasper, the chair of the London Race and Criminal Justice Consortium, said: “The recommendation to give Peter Herbert a written warning is an attempt to silence a black judge who has highlighted institutional racism”.
However, Mr Herbert emphasised the fact that there is a crisis within the judiciary irrespective of who is judging. “It’s not just a question of having more BME judges. It’s not just a complexion issue, it is about how we work in crisis”, he explained. “We need to monitor every court centre and respond to crime on a borough by borough basis”.
To know if a judge is getting things right, “we need to drill down into court centres. We also need to get the sentencing guidelines council, to address the issue of bias in sentencing and witness assessment in civil cases too”.
TNT News Yasin Chinembiri