“We are determined to better understand and challenge systemic racism in the legal aid sector.”
The year 2020 was unprecedented for a number of reasons, many of which we would all like to forget. However, we cannot lose the renewed focus on addressing racial inequality. The killing of George Floyd catalysed the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. YLAL is determined to play its part in maintaining the momentum and pushing forward racial equality in the legal aid sector.
Many of us have been complacent about racism, perhaps because of the work that we do on a daily basis. We regularly represent clients who are challenging racist policies and actions. However, holding others to account does not mean that we are doing enough to address systemic racism within our own sector.
Many of us assumed that racial diversity at the junior end of the profession meant that we were an inclusive sector. However, that analysis failed to recognise structural oppression. It is no coincidence that racial diversity decreases with seniority. Black QCs and law firm partners remain a rarity. Black, Brown and racialised minority junior lawyers report that they are offered fewer, or less favourable, opportunities to progress their careers. Racist micro-aggressions often go unchallenged. This might be due to a reluctance to expend career capital by ‘being difficult’, or ignorance of Black, Brown and racialised minority colleagues being the subject of these micro-aggressions. Neither is acceptable.
YLAL is determined to better understand and challenge systemic racism in the legal aid sector. We must be an anti-racist (rather than merely not-racist) organisation that fearlessly and proactively promotes racial equality in the sector. The esteemed psychologist, Dr John Amaechi OBE, explains
There’s a big difference between being not-racist and being anti-racist. I know it doesn’t seem like it. I know that both of these things seem equally good, but they’re not … Sometimes, we sit and we look around us and we think, ‘How can I possibly change all this?’ And sometimes you can’t. But what you can do is make sure wherever you go, people know where you stand. They know that you’re an anti-racist. You become a beacon of light that way. You become someone who makes other people want to be anti-racist too. You’ve got tools at your disposal. Learn. Read. And make everybody clear where you stand.
We will be guided by lived experience and will speak truth to power. Last year, we held a two-part series of #YLALVirtual events on Racial Diversity in the Professions: Then and Now, inspired by a desire to amplify the voices and perspectives of ethnic minority legal professionals and platform important discussions about racial diversity in the sector.
The first session
focused on the experiences and recommendations of a panel of legal professionals from Black, Brown and racialised groups at different stages of their careers. Panellists reflected on their experiences of overt racism, micro-aggressions and unconscious bias in the past and present day. Institutional racism and the multiple oppressions of race, class and gender were discussed. The relative privilege of certain racial groups and the specific problems of anti-Blackness within the sector were also explored.
Panellists put forward practical recommendations to improve racial diversity in the sector including blind and contextual recruitment, improved scholarships and support for young legal aid lawyers, and greater accountability of organisations. Measures to address racial inequality in terms of disparity of promotions, rankings, allocation of work at the Bar and judicial appointments were also recommended. Panellists noted that experiencing racism and then sharing these personal experiences to educate white people is exhausting and sometimes retraumatising. Therefore, white colleagues should make efforts to educate themselves on racism, challenge their own prejudices and be actively anti-racist.
In the second session
, these recommendations were put to representatives of legal regulators and associated organisations in the justice system. Representatives discussed the work their organisations have been doing to improve racial diversity, including offering scholarships, reverse-mentoring and anti-racism training. It was agreed that long-term work, greater visibility and financial investment are crucial to achieve improved racial equality and diversity.
There is so much more to be done. YLAL has appointed a diversity officer, Aneela Samrai of Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors, who will be spearheading our work to ensure that anti-racism is central to our mission. We will be holding a committee strategy day to develop a detailed plan for our equality and diversity work, including a review of our recruitment processes and campaigning priorities. We will work with our members to ensure that our campaigns, initiatives and work with other organisations take race and other diversities into consideration, particularly in respect of our social mobility work. We have put in place a policy to ensure panels for our events are diverse in respect of race and gender, and we plan to hold regular events on race and racial diversity issues.
We commit to not losing our focus on addressing racial inequality, in 2021 and beyond.