The first non-white circuit judge to sit at the Old Bailey has revealed she was often mistaken for a defendant or witness when she first entered the judiciary.
As she took up her new role, Anuja Ravindra Dhir said that when she began her career as a barrister just getting into courtrooms was a problem.
“I got used to turning up at courts and people saying to me ‘Witness?’ – no – ‘Defendant?’ - no; and looking rather surprised when I said I was the advocate,” she said.
Once she was forced to produce her wig and gown before security allowed her in, Dhir said. “Added to that, most clients did not want a young, Asian, Scottish female representing them, so that made it harder for me to build a client base.”
Now, a lot more defendants will be seeking Dhir’s favour as she dons the robes of a circuit judge at the Old Bailey to become the first non-white person – and the youngest – to fill the role.
The 49-year-old admits it has been a long road for the dyslexic schoolgirl from Dundee, whom teachers advised to pursue a career in hairdressing.
Dhir told BBC News that when she was first called to the bar in 1989, most barristers were white men, educated in public schools, who already had “some connection” to the profession. “My daughter, it would never cross her mind being treated differently because she’s a female or because she’s not white, whereas in my generation we did,” she said.
“We were surprised when people didn’t treat us differently. Not now, but when I came to the bar, I was not expecting to be treated like a white Oxbridge male at all. I’m often asked if there is a glass ceiling. I think sometimes there are two ceilings – or no glass ceiling at all. There is one glass ceiling that’s in our minds, that’s what we think we can achieve, so perhaps we impose our glass ceiling and that has happened to me several times.”
Despite the progress highlighted by Dhir’s career path, the judiciary was embroiled in allegations of racism this week after a black judge was disciplined for declaring that “racism is alive and well” among his colleagues.
The Judicial Conduct Investigations Office issued “formal advice” to Peter Herbert, a barrister who sits as a recorder in the crown court, over a 2015 speech which it said criticised the election commissioner’s decision to void the election of Lutfur Rahman as mayor of the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
In a letter sent to the lord chief justice this week objecting to the disciplinary process, Herbert, who is chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, said: “I fundamentally disagree that what I said posed any risk to the reputation of the judiciary.
“On the contrary, your decision and that of the minister herself, coupled with the actions of the panel combine to leave me in no doubt this is an example of direct race discrimination and victimisation.”