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The face of representation

MAKING A STAND: Urban Lawyers founder Tunde Okewale

MOST OF the people I grew up with are either dead or in prison. I was very fortunate, I grew up in a strict African family and my parents decided that I would become either a lawyer or a doctor. Personally, I had ambitions to become an athlete.

Unfortunately, many people from poorer communities do not have the same support from their families, teachers or friends. Their plight is made worse by the public institutions they engage with reinforcing the negative, self-limiting beliefs from home. This habitually takes the shape of teachers discouraging children from pursuing certain careers and creating self-limiting beliefs.

This was a reality for me growing up as I often encountered discouragement and bigotry, which was subtly and surreptitiously cloaked as concern by teachers and friends.

Black and Minority Ethnic and low-income communities are often confronted with this narrative and it easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may be exacerbated by a lack of diversity in education. According to the Policy Exchange Report ‘Bitter Sweet Success?’ the ‘minority presence’ in the education profession is less felt when compared to other professions attaining only eight per cent of BME secondary school teachers.

A holistic view needs to be adopted when identifying the causes of and solutions to the over-representation of BMEs in the criminal justice system. I believe there is a link, correlative if not casual, between crime, education and unemployment.

In early 2016 the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, reaffirmed the narrative by saying: “If you’re black, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university. And if you’re black, it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white.”

One of the biggest hurdles to achieving a truly diverse and inclusive justice system has been getting people to realise that creating a diverse legal profession is, in effect, all about change. This is inherently difficult to grasp, particularly in a profession that has been built on tradition and custom.

I believe that the cause of over-representation in the criminal justice system of specific groups is due to under-representation and a lack of diversity of the people administering justice. At present, people from black and ethnic minority groups make up over a quarter of prisoners in England and Wales, but only 14 per cent of the wider population.

Figures also show that 61 per cent of offenders from black and ethnic minority backgrounds receive jail sentences, compared to 56 per cent of white offenders for the same crime. There remains an issue in relation to the progression of BME practitioners at the Bar, with only six per cent of QCs declaring that they are BME (compared with 12 per cent of the practising Bar) and 90 per cent declaring that they are white. These figures are the same as they were in 2014.

This indicates an issue in relation to the progression of BME practitioners at the Bar. Diversity in the law is imperative to improving the legal and government infrastructure in the UK. I established Urban Lawyers, which aims to make the law (in its academic, practical and career contexts), more accessible to marginalised groups in society. Other similar initiatives are emerging, particularly at universities.

The University of Manchester have established Black Lawyers Matter, to address the under-representation of young black men studying law. Although it is encouraging to see changes and initiatives, we still have a very long way to go before we will see a real impact on the lives of BME people in our communities.

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