Sue James speaks to the irrepressible Raggi Kotak about what drew her to the law, going back to chambers after time away, and what gives her hope for the future.
‘I’ve been dealing with the impact of racism since a child. It’s in my bones.’ Racism and Raggi’s work around it form much of the conversation when we meet in the Knights Templar on Chancery Lane, London. It wasn’t our original choice of venue, but it was the first one we found open, and, as it’s just a few days since the pubs have opened inside, we are excited to be out and meeting people. We find a table upstairs and order a pitcher of Hawaiian punch to share.
You get the feeling that wonderful things happen when you’re with Raggi. As we walked to the pub, past The Law Society, a man had waved and approached her. Initially, she thought she must know him, but instead he asked her out for a drink. Her reply of ‘No thanks, I’m a lesbian’ didn’t deter him as he told her he really didn’t mind. We are still laughing as our pitcher of fluorescent orange punch arrives. It tastes like pop. Raggi tells me she doesn’t like alcohol that tastes of alcohol. I do.
I wouldn’t go to court like this. You have to wear a suit and say the right thing. You don’t want anything to turn them off you, where they might look at you and not listen.
Raggi is striking in appearance. She has a turquoise blue fringe that frames her almost permanently smiling face. I ask her if she would go to court with her blue hair. ‘I wouldn’t go to court like this,’ she says. ‘It’s already hard enough to get a judge to take you seriously as a racialised woman doing immigration law representing asylum-seekers, and you don’t know what judge you’re going to get. You have to wear a suit and say the right thing. You don’t want anything to turn them off you, where they might look at you and not listen. You just can’t take the risk.’
On Raggi’s first day at bar school, she wanted to ‘look really cool’ so she arrived with orange hair and pierced eyebrows, wearing Dr Martens and combat trousers. Everyone else was wearing a suit or their Oxbridge sweatshirts. This earned her the name of Radical Raggi, which she was called for the whole year. Raggi tells me that she had no idea of what she was stepping into. Having known hardly anyone who had been to university, she was ‘completely clueless’ about training contracts or pupillage and hadn’t decided what she wanted to do.
It was meeting Louise Hooper on the first day of the conversion course that was the turning point – that night they stayed out until 4 am drinking and became best mates. Raggi tells me she thinks it was because of Louise that she became a barrister, as Louise was heading in that direction and also had some immigration law experience. Later, volunteering for the Terrence Higgins Trust, she met another role model; an immigration lawyer, whom Raggi describes as ‘the coolest solicitor’, who had travelled and been to India. ‘I wanted to be like her,’ she tells me.
‘When I was a kid, I used to love to watch LA Law and I thought, “I could do that,”’ Raggi says, even though she didn’t know any lawyers. I’m interested to know why she loved it so much. She tells me it was the clever fighting that attracted her and the way the lawyers fought for justice. ‘When I was a little kid, I was always saddened by injustice, but I just didn’t have the language, the words for it, then.’
Black and Asian communities came together; they really rose up and challenged the system. It was like a wave of racism which we came out of but now we’ve gone back.
Raggi was born in 1968, ‘the year of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, when racism exploded in the UK’. By the time she was in primary school, she was being targeted. ‘You couldn’t go down the road without someone calling you a p***,’ she tells me. Secondary school was no better. But by the time she left school things had shifted: ‘Black and Asian communities came together; they really rose up and challenged the system. It was like a wave of racism, which we came out of, but now we’ve gone back.’ It’s one of the reasons she does her race work.
Her dad was an accountant and her mum a nurse, although her mum also did secretarial work. Her father was from a small town in Gujarat, India; he had lived on the street and had partially educated himself. Her mum was from Zanzibar. They both emigrated to the UK, moving to north London, where Raggi grew up. Her father left home when she was six years old and her mother brought up the family.
Raggi left school at 17. She tells me she had grown up around violence and wasn’t able to cope with the system. Her first job she describes as her big secret, one she’s not sure if she’s ready to tell – but I decide it is time. Raggi talks about showing up as your true self, and so, in that spirit, I have decided to reveal that Raggi Kotak was once a professional hamburger fryer for McDonald’s. It didn’t last long, though, as she started an access course at North London Polytechnic, then a degree in business studies. After finishing, ‘everybody was becoming management trainees in places like Marks and Spencer and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to kill myself right now.”’ That’s when she decided on law.
Living the dream
Raggi tells me she didn’t have politics growing up, but describes a period, once she’d met Louise and discovered immigration law, when it felt like she had it all. Raggi was listening to incredible lawyers at the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry during the day and going home at night to watch This Life. She had just got pupillage at Garden Court together with Louise. ‘We jumped for joy,’ she says. ‘It was such an exciting time. I thought this was what my life as a lawyer was going to be like.’ I ask her who her favourite character was in This Life, but I already know the answer: Anna – vivacious, bold, fearless.
She then hit a bit of a bump, as she failed the course and had to resit. She hadn’t been attending bar school as real life seemed much more important right then. She tells me: ‘I remember saying to the people that threw me out, “But I was at the Lawrence Inquiry,” but they were like, “We don’t care.” it was an amazing time. Being a part of history was more important than going to classes, and I don’t regret it.’
Around 80 per cent of Raggi’s work was trafficking. It was challenging work – ‘there are only so many stories you can hear of children being raped’ – so, she took some time out, travelled, and trained in conflict and race education. But during that time, she noticed that racism was growing: Trump had been voted in and the far right was on the rise in Europe. She felt it was time to return to practice and applied back to her previous chambers, One Pump Court. They held a special meeting and voted her back in within 24 hours. She was delighted; she tells me how much she loves her chambers, but she had forgotten how much is done for you. ‘The clerks say let me book your car in or let me sort out your computer,’ she explains, ‘and I’m sort of embarrassed by the privilege of being a barrister. The way we hold power is huge.’
Raggi was studying conflict, which was challenging after her trauma history, as she explains: ‘It’s really important in this work to hold space.’ But after a few years, she felt ready, so she sent a message round chambers informing them she was thinking about holding a session on power and oppression. A dozen people responded. She tells me it went really well – so well that the chair of chambers, who had attended the session, said that it was brilliant. As a result, chambers voted it in as compulsory training – the first place to do so.
I do sometimes think things have to get really bad for people to wake up.
Raggi’s race work – what she describes as her JEDI Consultancy
(Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) – was increasing and she was training all over the world. At the time George Floyd was killed, she was working flat out, then everything went quiet. She spent two months watching Netflix and got herself a lockdown kitten – before her work exploded again. She tells me: ‘I do sometimes think things have to get really bad for people to wake up.’
I had heard Raggi speak at the Law Centres Network conference in December 2020. I tell her that the feedback was fantastic. She is genuinely delighted at hearing this: ‘Really? That’s really nice to hear. I started at Law Centres, so I am basically talking to my kind of lawyer.’
Raggi tells me we have a long way to go, but feels the conversations around race are different right now and there are real possibilities for change. ‘I’m quite a positive person anyway, but I really do feel good about this, because I see so much growth and so much change. And a lot of race educators say that they’ve never seen a moment like this before.’
She acknowledges the courage and brilliance of the young lawyers who are openly talking about race, who are standing up and refusing to bow down to the system. She tells me that racism was a daily experience when she started at the bar, but no one spoke about it, ‘we just shut up and put up’. The younger lawyers give her the courage to bring change but she feels more senior lawyers also need to step forward. That responsibility is proportionate to power and experience, and those who have been in the system for longer should be taking this forward and letting those new to the profession learn how to be lawyers.
We have been talking for more than two hours and I can’t drink any more of the Hawaiian punch (Raggi had told me after ordering she would only have one glass as she was driving). As we get up to leave, I ask Raggi if she has ever used the toilets here. It’s not a question I would normally ask, but the ones in the Knights Templar are quite spectacular and Raggi is just as excited as I thought she would be as we open the door into the opulence of the ladies toilets.
My LAG colleague, Esther Pilger, had described Raggi as a ‘force of nature’ and she lived up to every bit of that description. Her resilience, her energy and her drive are incredible, but it’s Raggi’s positivity that I take home with me that night.
Hero in the law
I have two who I completely adore and who have been such incredible supporters of mine: Frances Webber, formerly of Garden Court Chambers, and Kathryn Cronin who still practises at Garden Court.
Taylor House. I have done my best work there for asylum-seekers. It’s also a nice walk from chambers and you can walk back through the market and get nice food.
I don’t have a favourite case – for me, working with the courageous, incredible women who I have represented a thousand times, who have experienced extreme violence in so many different forms, and have the courage to show up, it’s not one case, it’s representing every single one of those women.
When I was working at the Terrence Higgins Trust, they used to make jokes about my hair, that I spent all of my money on dye. I’m obsessed. I quite like my current haircut, I love my blue. It’s summer, we are out of lockdown, I’m not in court and I want to live in the moment.
Cocktails. I’m a cocktail girl.
Jukebox single of choice
‘(Something Inside) So Strong’, Labi Siffre.
Favourite lawyer in tv/film/book
Anna in This Life, who is wild and courageous, hilarious and brilliant.