Contributor: Victor Amokeodo
"We have not neglected our community"
BP: Michael Mears has recently been elected president of the Law society. He is well known for his right wing views. What effect do you think his presidency will have on ethnic minority aspirants to the profession?
PH: I think we are extremely concerned that it will have quite a negative effect on the aspirations and achievements of prospective Black lawyers in the United Kingdom. It may well be that he seeks to roll back many of the gains in equal opportunities terms which have been so hard fought for over the last few years, in particular the implementation of the Law Society regulations that require solicitors to achieve targets in terms of their employment, recruitment and selection of trainee solicitors, partners and the access that Black law students have to not only city firms but to the whole range of the solicitor's profession in the public and private sector.
BP: But at the moment, Black graduates and solicitors don't get equal access to training and jobs anyway. So why should Michael Mears' presidency change anything?
PH: I think we were looking to the in-coming president of the Law Society to take a lead in redressing the large imbalance that occurs in the granting of training places to prospective solicitors. The last survey shows that 83% of Black students who passed their professional exams could not find training places as opposed to approximately 48% of white students in the same position. There is therefore a glaring disparity in the ability and willingness of the profession to recruit Black graduates. So, that for me is not the type of person who would do anything substantial to redress this imbalance. If anything, what he would seek to do is to argue that really racism is not a problem within the profession and that it would all go away if we do not make too much of a fuss about it and the profession is supposedly an honourable one which doesn't need to be taught any lessons in what people regard as political correctness.
BP: Labour has recently published its legal policy plan "Access to Justice". One of the main proposals is to channel the entire legal aid fund through a community legal service, similar in principle to the public defenders office in the US. What are your views on this and how will this affect Black people, many of whom depend on legal aid?
PH: Well, the Labour Party's proposals are still in draft form and they are many years away from implementation. We will seek to negotiate with the hopefully incoming Labour government to ensure that any change in the direction and philosophy of the legal aid system does not significantly disadvantage members of the ethnic minority who use it. We would hope that Legal Aid is granted to all those most in need. In real terms, Legal Aid is only available to about 75 - 80% of the people that it was originally available to when the scheme was first started. So we would want to see, if anything, not a waste of Legal Aid resources but more effective targeting which looks to prune the cost charge rates of pay of QCs, time wasted by judges taking long holidays during the summer vacations when courts don't simply sit for long periods, and the way which Legal Aid goes to waste at present with the possible duplication of services by barristers and solicitors working on the same case. Those are just some of the ways in which we think public spending can be cut far more effectively. We are in favour of the abolishing of the two tier system of justice and also abolishing the division in the profession itself.
BP: Back to a question related to the first, many students perceive the SBL as being ego-driven and not very student friendly. How do you intend to correct these impressions and assist ethnic minority students in entering the profession?
PH: First of all let me make it quite clear what our philosophy is. We don't believe that is the general perception amongst students about the Society of Black Lawyers - to view it as something that is ego-driven. Lawyers generally are driven by personal ambition and law students must have a degree of personal ambition and ego if they wish to succeed. There is a willingness for Black people generally not to act collectively but to seek to look for the worst in any organisation. Many students won't join the African-Caribbean Society, they won't join the Society of Nigerian Lawyers, Ghanaian Lawyers or anything else simply because we are perpetually afraid of our own existence, whereas we have no problems in joining the student bodies of Hull University, Leeds University or any such organisations. What we hope to do is to change the fundamental philosophy of Black law students to build up confidence in their own self and racial identity so they would not be afraid of joining Black organisations of whatever type. And in terms of the society, we would like students who are quite willing to contribute not only to their career progression but to the wider Black community. We say that while it is not bad to enhance the career opportunities of students who when they qualify do nothing for their own community, we are only interested in students who are willing to commit at the time of study and after they qualify, to help others qualify themselves and help those who suffer the real hardship in our community who are basically African peoples who are subject to racial harassment, unemployment and unfair detention.
BP: In the US Black people in the legal system have moved far ahead of their UK counterparts. For example they have very high profile Black judges while we haven't. Why have we lagged so much behind our American counterparts and .....
PH: I'll stop you there. The reality - although we don't recognise it - is that we are way ahead. African-Caribbean lawyers in Britain have equalled, in a short space of time - in 40 years - the achievements of the African-Americans. I would put it this way: out of 70 or 80 judges in the United Kingdom, 20 are of African, Caribbean or Asian descent. In the United States, of approximately 1700 federal judges, there are only 82 African-American judges and 54 Hispanic judges. Given the fact that this these communities have been around for about four hundred years, they haven't actually moved that far. In terms of the African-American lawyers, they still represent only 3% of the United States legal profession, whereas here you will find that we - African and Caribbean and Asian lawyers - represent 6.7% of our profession. So what I'm trying to say is that in terms of economic power we don't rival the Americans. In terms of appointments to high judicial office, we don't. But in the number of Black law students, we already match, if not better the number of African and Caribbean origin law students in the United States.
BP: But is it not much better to have high profile judges with real power as opposed to just having students with little or no power or influence?
PH: There are only two famous Black judges in America. The first is Clarence Thomas - who has done nothing but a disservice to the African-American community through failing to support affirmative action policies. He has failed to support civil rights legislation at all in any sphere. The other was the Supreme Court Judge, Thurgood Marshall. Yes, he did a tremendous amount over 50 years for civil rights in America. But you cannot rely on an individual for your salvation because if you do that, particularly in the process of the American constitution, you are susceptible to having a person of African descent put in a position of power and influence who does nothing but a disservice to your comunity. So you have to have strength and depth. Basically the reason why I say that over the next 10, 15, 20 years we would have surpassed what the Black lawyers in the United States have achieved is simply in percentage terms. In the ghettos, 99% of African Americans still haven't got access to universitas, colleges of higher education. So, that's what I am looking at. The last count was that 22% of all applicants to Bar school are of African, Caribbean and Asian origin. African-Americans can't even get close to that figure. What they have is - I think - five Black run universities. We don't have that here. They have economic power and there are Black lawyers who who are multi-millionaires - several of them. We don't have that here. But in collective terms we are ahead of them. I think we have something to learn from them, but they also have something to learn from us. What we have is a mutual process where we benefit from closer international links.
BP: Lately there have been many attacks on the Black community, notably comments made by Paul Condon about Black muggers, comments made by various Ministers about Black single parents, exclusions from schools, illegal immigrants etc. The SBL has been noticeably silent on these issues at a time when many in the Black community would have expected it to come out in our defence. Why has this been the case? How do you intend to raise the SBL's profile within the community at large?
PH: Well that has not been the case. I must take issue with your perception. We have spoken out consistently over Sir Condon's comments. We took part in the Brian Douglas March, We were at the Joy Gardner demonstration outside Scotland Yard. We are currently producing a paper on policing with the National Black Caucus, and we are working with the National Black Alliance ... in fact we wrote to the Association of Chief Police Officers expressing our concern. We were at the launch of the Black Metropolitan Police Association and made clear our views there. We submitted evidence to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice stating our position in terms of race, policing and crime. We gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on Racial Violence.... So I think - to say the least - if the media chose not to report what we are doing, it is not because of lack of trying. If you look at the Times editorial of the 30th of July, the Society of Black Lawyers was criticised by the paper for opposing of Sir Condon's comments. So if the Times knows that we are up to something, I think that the problem is not that we are not trying...
BP: But then how come there is so much that you are doing that the Black community does not know about?
PH: Well, part of it is that we don't have the..... You know as well as I do that unless Black publications carry what Black organisations are doing, we generally speaking don't get reported. I will give you one example. We faxed a letter from Baltimore to the Times and they phoned us up in Baltimore to say that they would not publish it. So it is not so easy to say that, if the only way you are going to hear about us is if the White media decides to tell you about it.
BP: Did the rejection have to do with unacceptable contents of the letter?
PH: The contents were very reasonable, very polite, very well expressed. We spoke the truth. They just didn't like to hear a Black Perspective. Basically if it wishes to give you a voice it gives you a voice and if it does not wish to give you a voice, that is the end of the matter. So it is not surprising that it took us about five years to get a profile at all. Five years of really hard work behind the scenes. But if they want to close it down tomorrow, that's it. They may report the demonstrations but they won't give a report of our issuing an academic paper on policing. And the Black community turns round to say they haven't heard about it. We haven't got he means to distribute copies to the Black community.
BP: The Police Complaints Authority says that officers will not face disciplinary action for their involvement in the death of Joy Gardner. What are your feelings on this ruling? Given similar cases where policemen who killed Black people have walked away unpunished, would you say that the legal system is tilted against Black people in the UK?
PH: This is part of a pattern whereby about 81 Black people have been killed in police custody over the past 20 years. This year alone, we have the Shiji Lapite case. His was one of the cases where Black people died under suspicious circumstanes. In 1992 Oliver Price was unlawfully killed by being strangled by six white police officers. That was the verdict at the inquest hearing. Still there was no prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the officers are still serving in the police force. So it is not surprising that the Police Complaints Authority has not disciplined any officer. Not only were the senior officers not to blame for issuing manacles and chains and gags. They won't even deal with the junior officers who are implementing these so called techniques. So the Police Complaints Authority is very much a government institution which will always take the line of least resistance when it comes to matters of this nature.
BP: Can you explain to our readers the importance, to the Black community, of the private criminal prosecution brought by the family of Steven Lawrence. Is the Society of Balck Lawyers helping out with the case?
PH: The SBL has been involved ever since the tragic murder. We have been advising the Lawrence family, and at the moment we have 3 barristers assisting in the prosecution. We are keeping a close eye on the case and actually took up the issue with the Home Secretary at the time and with Nelson Mandela when he met the family. We have actually been involved, I think, in all the racial murders in the 90s. Certainly we attempted to do all that we could to assist the families.
BP: You recently had a disagreement - with the Bar Council - in which you were described as "childish": Does it not reduce the prestige of the SBL?
PH: I think if you are dealing with racism then Black people are often insulted in stereotypical terms as they are depicted as less than adults and childish or some sort of sub specie. So if anything, it is actually bordering on historical precedent. I don't regard losing this case as a defeat because the publicity and the media attention was very much in my favour. The final decision by the tribunal involved was not really a surprise because it was one of the establishment protecting another of its institutions. And I would say that the most important lesson is the Bar Council would have to answer in a public forum why it seeks to discipline a Black lawyer. Certainly this will encourage other Black lawyers to take legal action against major institutions. There is a Black solicitor who is currently suing the government legal services department quite successfully. I think it demonstrates that Black lawyers are not afraid to challenge such institutions and use the law to protect our fundamental human rights to live free from discrimination.
BP: Unlike in the US, there are not many high profile British Black personalities outside the entertainment industry. As one of such personalities, can we expect to see more of you in public life. To be more specific, will you get involved in mainstream politics?
PH: I think gradually you will see more people of African descent becoming more successful in fields other than just entertainment and sport. Certainly the situation does not bode well for many young Black people in Britain. They are constrained by a glass ceiling which will not allow them to succeed beyond a certain level, so there has to be a continuous struggle to remove this ceiling which has been put on our aspirations, and we have to take the struggle to a political forum. Personally, I sought nomination - unsuccessfully - within the Labour Party, for a seat in Liverpool Riverside. That however does not mean the end of my involvement in mainstream politics.
BP: And what would be the main goals you intend to achieve through politics?
PH: The main thrust will be to fight for racial, social and economic justice for the disadvantaged in the community. You have a wide audience in the constituency and that will include people who are Black and White, disabled, able bodied, young and old, male and female. And that is the premise upon which I will operate.
BP: Is there anything you would like our readers to know which we have not touched upon today?
PH: Yes, the SBL is run by a number of solicitors and barristers and not an individual. There is a large number of people who have contributed a lot over the years to the organisation and - like many other organisations - we have seen good and bad times. Over the next 12 months we have a very busy programme starting with a major conference in November where we will have speakers such as Johnny Cochrane, O J Simpson's lawyer, Rodney King's lawyer, the assistant Attorney General of the United States, Bernie Grant and Dianne Abbot. Basically all the campaigners of the Steven Lawrence, Brian Doulgas and Shiji Lapite cases will be present. So what we will be doing is to try to set a political agenda. What the government has done over the past 18 months is to play the race card in terms of immigration and crime and in terms of policing to portray African and Asian people as deviants who need to be contained by laws to prevent violence and restrict our movement. On the other hand, there has been nothing said about racial attacks and the worrying high levels of unemployment. So we are trying in the next 18 months before the next general election to set the agenda, in concert with Black police officers, probation officers, volutary organiastions... So we will try and turn around the agenda so they will see these issues from a Black perspective. They may try to ignore what we are saying but we will write, campaign, agitate and fight for our civil and political rights.