Wednesday, 18 April 2012


I attended a Public Law Lecture on Monday, hosted by Norfolk Community Law Service. A great charity that works to provide access justice I took some powerful messages from the lecture.

Imran Khan was the guest speaker. Not the cricketer he said! Rather the lawyer who worked with Neville and Doreen Lawrence to secure justice. The justice that should have been provided to them by the police service, when their son Stephen was brutally murdered in a racist attack in 1993.

Khan spoke pragmatically about a range of issues. Of his work with the family & the important legacy of the case. His personal experiences as a relatively newly qualified lawyer when he took the case on and his recent experience of stop and search. He finished strangely upbeat whilst being clear about his fear for the future and the destruction of the current legal aid system being wreaked by this government.

Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence with lawyer Imran Khan (on the left)

He spoke frankly about how he was challenged by other lawyers representing the police officers who had failed the Lawrence family in court. How he was questioned by them about being an anti racist lawyer, as though to be so was a 'badge of dishonour' to the legal profession. He was described as a trouble maker; an activist and anti police.

As the previous Chief Executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality these are all words that have been used to describe me & the community led work we have delivered How can it be the same in Suffolk in 2012 as it was back in 1993. Why do institutions not open their hearts and minds to the possibility that the community know best and look to the compelling evidence that demonstrates how race and other forms of inequalities continue to blight our society.

During questions Khan was asked about how much progress had really been made, and he talked about progress in inches rather than in feet - but progressing none the less. He was clear that we still faced the most awful racism in our society and also that racism was subtly changing. He articulated with clarity how institutional racism remained. He gave a recent account of being stopped in his car by Met police officers who told him it was random. He hung around and observed other 'random' vehicle stops after his and noted that it was only people of colour whose cars were stopped.

Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in 1993
 When describing the important legacy of the fight for justice by Neville and Doreen Lawrence he commented that up until the report was published the black community were seen as the problem. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry Report 1999 (it took 6 years for the family to get some answers) and subsequent definition of institutional racism clearly put the institutions as the problem - an empowering change

Khan described the huge challenges that remain but told us that at least as a lawyer now he has the legal means and tools to challenge racism. Extensive race (now wider equality) and Human Rights legislation came about as a result of those who campaigned for justice and it did not exist back in 1993. It is clear that the legislation has provided an important shift.

It moved the black community, and indeed others who experience discrimination at the hands of public bodies, from a position of 'victim' to one of 'protagonist'  I see this as a liberating explanation, despite understanding the very real disempowering impact of discrimination and how hard it can be to take on institutions.

We were reminded that the Conservative government at the time refused an independent inquiry requested by the Lawrence family. That it was only once Labour were in power that Jack Straw delivered this and subsequent legislation. It is no wonder then that this current government seems so intent on eroding such critical legislation. So intent is it on this erosion that it placed the Equality Act on its 'Red Tape' challenge website An insult to the memory of Stephen Lawrence.

Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu
 Khan left us with two powerful thoughts. The first a quote based on an interpretation originally from Dante's 'Inferno' that Dr John Sentamu, an advisor to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry said: 'The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality'

The second was that if the Stephen Lawrence case landed on his desk today, with the current legal aid landscape he would not be able to take it on. How chilling is this as a message and where does it leave those in their search for justice?

We must continue to lobby our MP's on the cuts to Legal Aid and to the Equality and Human Rights Commission legal grants programme We must support local equality groups and community law centres. We must vote in the local elections and hold our local politicians to account. We must wear our anti racist badges of honour with pride.

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