Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-10-30
At the bar: ‘I can’t take the knowledge with me’
Louise Heath
Description: Professor Leslie Thomas QC social
LAG’s new patron, Professor Leslie Thomas QC, talks to Sue James about his journey to the law, from commercial via housing to inquests, which ‘ticked all the boxes’, tackling racism in the profession and the police, and the importance of inspirational teachers.
‘I’m a North Kensington boy, that’s where I was born. My mum would’ve been on the waiting list for Grenfell, because it was being built, but she didn’t want to be in a high rise.’ Leslie tells me he was christened in the Methodist church where the Grenfell support groups are hosted. It was his local church. It seems fitting that he delivered the opening statement to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry where he represents 23 survivors and bereaved family members. I ask him how that feels: ‘The reality is my life is a million miles away from many of their lives today, but I know where I come from. I will never forget my roots.’
We are meeting on Zoom as Leslie is in the Caribbean. He’s looking very relaxed in a crisp white short-sleeved shirt printed with tiny palm trees. He taunts me with his screen saver, which isn’t a real, live rolling ocean but comes pretty close as the waves lap behind him. I look past Leslie on my computer screen to the grey London November sky and try to smile. Happily for LAG, Leslie has agreed to become our patron as we head into our 50th year and I’m interested to know more about his journey to becoming Professor Leslie Thomas QC.
Leslie tells me his mum and dad, his ‘folks’, were part of the Windrush generation, having come from the islands of Antigua and Dominica. He says they met and fell in love in Ladbroke Grove where they made their first home – a one-room bedsit owned by the notorious slum landlord, Peter Rachman. It was the mid-60s, when there was open discrimination against people of colour. It was hard to find accommodation and there was little social housing. Leslie says: ‘Rachman didn’t care about the colour of your skin, he just cared about the colour of your money.’ Leslie still remembers the smell of the paraffin heater, which was used for cooking meals but was inadequate as a heater, leaving the room damp and cold. He suffered with bronchitis while his sister had asthma. When his brother arrived, the one room was too small for five, so his parents applied to a small housing association that specifically housed people from the African-Caribbean and Irish communities. They moved to a maisonette in Battersea ‘betwixt the commons’ – Clapham and Wandsworth – he tells me.
Not a straight road
‘The first thing my careers officer did when I told him I wanted to be a barrister was to raise an eyebrow,’ Leslie says. ‘He then suggested either “a nice job in Tesco or, if you are really interested in this law thing, then why don’t you become a policeman?”’ The idea of Leslie being a policeman is so incomprehensible, it makes me laugh.
It was while studying sociology at school that Leslie discovered societal inequality. ‘I was radicalised by sociology and Marxist teachings. I literally saw the scales fall from my eyes.’ And he thought that law would be ‘a pretty good way of trying to change things or to redress the balance between the rich and the poor’. I ask him why he decided to become a barrister. He tells me that he didn’t understand the difference between solicitors and barristers, but he knew that he wanted to be a lawyer who appeared in court and argued for people. It was the 80s; television was becoming very Americanised and he was influenced by LA Law, ‘I was looking for someone who looked like me and the closest I could get to somebody who looked like me was Blair Underwood [who played Jonathan Rollins] – a smooth black lawyer who goes around fighting political causes.’ He tells me Rumpole, ‘some old, white, crusty, middle-class man’, didn’t have the same appeal.
‘I think as a youngster I was angry. I was angry with large corporations milking people for their labour, extracting every last drop of energy out of us, just to make their profits bulge.’ He had been stopped by the police aged 14, in his school uniform, at 4 pm on his way home from school. He was told he ‘fitted the description’. He’d never been in trouble with the police before, but he had the wherewithal to say: ‘Can I see what’s in your hands before you put your hands in my pockets?’ ‘You know, people talk about white privilege, but how many white children of my age are taught by their parents those life lessons. People don’t realise that white privilege doesn’t mean you necessarily have more than me,’ he says.
Description: Leslie Thomas
Leslie at the start of his career.
Leslie’s route to the bar was not a straight one: he failed his 11 Plus, his O Levels and his A Levels – all needing retakes. He tells me, ‘My journey has been a series of failures, but those failures have made me what I am, because I didn’t lie down and give up. I moved on to something else and tried again.’ Kingston University took him on the strength of his interview, having seen promise in him. He recalls his first assignment being marked heavily with red pen and being told by his professor: ‘This is rubbish, Leslie.’ He agrees it was. But he learned from the experience, took extra classes, worked and read all the time. He says by the end of the third year he was flying, just missing a first. But he hadn’t been taught the exam game, he had to learn it for himself. He also now realises he has a mild form of dyslexia.
Leslie talks about the importance of having inspirational teachers along his journey. Another professor at Kingston University, Robert Upex, whom he tells me he ‘loves dearly’, explained to Leslie how to apply for the bar, chose an Inn of Court for him and set Leslie up in pupillage with a friend of Robert’s who was in a commercial set. ‘The old boys’ network working in my favour,’ he says. It was here that he was schooled in black-letter law, knocking out six or seven sets of pleadings per day: ‘He used to mark my work. It was like a factory.’ He loved the training but hated the work. It was at a without prejudice settlement conference, watching a lawyer represent a widow whose husband had died in an explosion at a chemical factory, that he realised that he was on the wrong side. ‘The lawyer didn’t have the sophistication of the company lawyers, he wasn’t in a slick suit, he was a bit scruffy … but he fought tooth and nail against a whole bunch of suits like us.’
Easing my soul
In the evening, Leslie was working for Stockwell and Clapham Law Centre, Brixton Law Centre, Central London Law Centre (later being on the Trustee Board for 17 years) and the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty). He was at a different centre four nights per week every week. He was doing it to ‘ease my soul,’ he tells me. These were the people he felt he wanted to work with.
It was at the Liberty Christmas party that he met Tony Gifford (Lord Anthony Gifford QC). Leslie didn’t know who he was. ‘We were speaking over the hors d’oeuvres and he asked me what I was doing. He was just another white bloke but he seemed very interested in me.’ Leslie told Gifford he had a commercial pupillage, but the Law Centre work was what he really wanted to do. Gifford suggested Leslie meet some of his colleagues at his chambers. The ‘meet’ ended up being an interview at Wellington Street. ‘He set me up!’ Leslie exclaims, ‘I was so unprepared,’ but they offered him a place immediately. This then gave him a dilemma – either stay in a potentially lucrative career at the commercial bar or go to Wellington Street. He tells me the decision took all of five minutes but not before his pupil master tried to dissuade him: ‘These people are radical leftie lawyers. You’re an intelligent, talented young black man, you could do really well if you stay here. Your career will be solid.’
Leslie felt there weren’t enough people who looked like him, thought like him and spoke like him representing people from where he came from, so that’s what he decided to do. He wanted to represent people whom he could relate to and who could relate to him, to be someone who understood the issues that they were experiencing. After Wellington Street broke up, Leslie headed to Garden Court Chambers, where he remains to this day. David Watkinson asked him if he was interested in doing housing law. Leslie didn’t know, but knew that he didn’t want to do crime, so gave it a go. He describes it as an extended pupillage for the first six months – ‘I loved it.’ He goes on: ‘I loved all aspects of housing and I was good at it. The solicitors really appreciated it – firstly, because there weren’t many black people doing housing (and still aren’t 30 years later) and, secondly, because I am fearless in the courtroom, and lots of cases just weren’t being fought.’
I had forgotten that he started out as a housing lawyer. He tells me he shared a room with Jan Luba QC for nearly 10 years. ‘Jan showed me a completely different way of working. You have the chaos of David Watkinson and the order of Jan Luba.’ This makes me laugh and reminds me that Leslie and I have so much shared history. Not just instructing Wellington Street in the early days but later fighting to keep and improve people’s homes. I wonder, without the housing association tenancy that gave him a secure, safe home, where Leslie and his family would have ended up.
Leslie was popular. He started to get lots of police and inquest work, and something had to give. ‘Inquest work ticked all the boxes,’ Leslie says. ‘The dead can’t speak – you may have heard that before – but you can speak for them. And I decided that I was going to do that. It’s all too easy when people in custody die and the only witnesses are state agents. I used to think – am I the only one who is thinking that they have every reason to lie? And they can commit the perfect crime. They are the police and the prison, and there is no one to challenge them, so I decided that is what I would do – challenge them.’ I ask him if we need to abolish the police force. He doesn’t think so but does think it needs some radical restructuring and rethinking for it to change – ‘but that involves embracing the problem – and you can’t change what you deny’.
Everyone but the barrister
‘I ask my contemporaries at the bar how many times they have been refused a taxi because the taxi driver doesn’t want to drive you when you’ve left chambers late at night because you’re black. They don’t experience that. If I drive a posh car in my pinstripe suit - and I did have a police officer stop me: “This is a nice car.” On the assumption that you are either up to no good or you are a drug dealer. Because a black man cannot drive a nice car.’
We talk of Alexandra Wilson’s recent experience of being mistaken for the defendant and her tweet that went viral. Leslie tells me that she is a mentee of his. ‘I love Alex, and I think she’s brilliant for what she’s done. Alex represents a new generation of black lawyers who aren’t afraid to say this is wrong. What’s good and what’s different about Alex’s experience, and those of us who have come before her, is social media. Alex’s story is not new. Nicola Williams at Wellington Street, who when giving talks in 1989 would say, “As a black woman I am everyone but the barrister.” She was mistaken for the client’s sister, the defendant, the clerk, the solicitor’s clerk, the trainee, but never the barrister.’
Passing on the baton
‘I hate inquests. I am so tired of them. I find them so depressing, but they are so necessary. You have to be brave to do them, to have determination and persistence,’ Leslie says. I had read the preface to his 2014 book for LAG, Inquests: a practitioner’s guide, prior to meeting with him, in which he describes his first inquest (see box below). He tells me he feels ashamed now that he didn’t challenge the coroner’s decision not to call the independent witnesses, but it has fuelled his fearlessness in the court room. And it’s why he tries to get the message across to younger barristers: ‘Stay strong and make the points, because if you don’t you will be criticised later. Even if you are going to be slapped down, you make the point, and you pick it up on appeal.’
He sees his role now very much as a mentor/teacher. ‘I have done my time. I have done 30 years of inquests and I am out now on good behaviour. But what I can do, so this knowledge, this experience, is not lost, is teach. I love teaching and I love sharing and that’s why I love LAG.’ It’s such a nice thing for Leslie to say – and totally unprompted (honestly). ‘It was an honour when LAG started to publish my articles and then it was a privilege when I became a trainer. That’s why I still do it.’
I ask Leslie about his upcoming training for LAG: ‘How to deal with the dark arts in the coroner’s court’. He tells me it’s about using all the weapons in your armoury to your best advantage. I tell him it reminds me of Ian Macdonald QC in the Mangrove Nine case. He says his friend Shabier Kirchner was the cinematographer on the recent Steve McQueen film, Mangrove, which leads us on to a discussion about how brilliant the Small Axe films are.
I had read that Leslie uses his hair in cross-examination and want to know more. ‘Hair is so political,’ he tells me. ‘I remember when I grew my locks, I grew them as a sign of defiance. And what I would do is have my hair tied back normally in a ponytail, and when I came to cross-examine a police officer, I would have my hair out to intimidate them. Deliberately. Judges wouldn’t dare have an argument about my hair.’
What now?
Description: Leslie playing sax outside Garden Court
Learning languages is something that Leslie finds rewarding. He failed his French A Level but went to night school to retake it. He passed, he thinks with a B, ‘but I’ll take a B,’ he says. This encouraged him to do more: Spanish, then Russian and now Polish, as his wife is Polish and his daughter bilingual. He tells me: ‘It’s a pleasure to watch her.’ Music is also really important to him. He loves to play the tenor saxophone and compose melodies over popular jazz standards. As for his work, he wants to ‘hand the baton on to the new generation of lawyers. I can’t take the knowledge with me. The best I can do is to share the skills that I have learnt so that people are not starting from scratch.’
Leslie was appointed Gresham Professor of Law in 2020, its first black professor, as well as Visiting Professor in Law at Goldsmiths. He has been part of some of the most high-profile inquiries, inquests and cases. He has considerable knowledge and skill to share but so much more. There is a deep empathy for his clients: he understands the daily indignity of not being listened to, of poor housing, of discrimination, and he translates that understanding into action. I can’t think of a more fitting patron to take LAG into our 50th year – supporting, training and sharing knowledge with the next generation of social welfare lawyers.
Hero in the law
Rudy Narayan.
Favourite court
Southwark Coroner’s Court – I have had some of my best victories there (even though there are no wins or losses in inquests).
Favourite case
That’s a really difficult one. I think if I caveat it – the case that gave me some of the biggest satisfaction – the Christi and Bobby Shepherd case – the two youngsters who died of carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu.
Favourite haircut
Favourite drink
An old-fashioned rum punch.
Jukebox single of choice
Probably Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’.
Favourite lawyer in TV/film/book
A time to kill by John Grisham – as he’s a lawyer representing a black man who killed the two white men who had raped his 10-year-old daughter.
‘I was the only one who had no papers’
When I did my first inquest in 1990, I quite frankly did not have a clue. I was told that the hearing would be a short matter. I was very junior counsel just out of my training, and the coroner’s court was the forum where junior inexperienced counsel were sent to learn their trade. It was at a time when it was generally thought by many in the profession that inquests were not ‘important’ cases. They certainly were not lucrative if one was representing the interests of the family since there was no legal aid. I would do my first case ‘pro bono’, in other words free of charge. I believe this was the reason why such work was readily available for junior members of the bar. I attended my first hearing thinking it would be a short, simple affair. It was not. Yet I had no papers as such apart from backsheet from the solicitors and a witness statement from the mother of the deceased. Her son had died while being restrained by the police. He was a drug addict and had been on cocaine. He had been arrested, struggled with several police officers, suddenly gone limp and then died. I had no post mortem report. That evidence would be provided at the inquest. This was a time when there was no disclosure of witness statements or evidence. I did not know what the police officers would be saying. I had a couple of days to prepare for this hearing. I did not know where to start. I asked various members of my chambers and was pointed to the leading textbooks on the subject. There were two at the time, both of which I found impenetrable. They were not practical. They talked about treasure, the great history of the coroner’s court and the law. But they did not tell me what I had to do or what I should expect. The language was complicated, and the books were full of legal theory and case law. I asked some colleagues, who gave me some advice and assistance.
When I attended the hearing, I was shocked. This was no small, quick hearing. It was intense and complicated. I had a grieving mother to deal with. I had no idea how to deal with such grief. The mother pointed out that there were many witnesses who she did not see at court. Where were they? There were several police officers to give evidence. They were represented by very senior counsel. The chief constable was separately represented. I noted that both counsel for the police, although they had different clients, sat together, conferred together and colluded together during the hearing. I was excluded from all their discussions. It was definitely us and them, despite the fact I had read in the learned books that the inquest was not a ‘trial’ and there were no parties. It certainly felt that way. The hearing started and I felt thoroughly outnumbered.
The coroner was cold and hostile. I asked him for his witness list, which he reluctantly gave me. I could see that there were a number of witnesses that were being read, most of them were independent witnesses (bystanders). I inquired why they were not being called. The coroner said he had reviewed their witness statements and there was not much they could add to their written evidence. I said I hadn’t seen their witness statements and whether I could do so. Again reluctantly, he gave them to me but said I could read them as the hearing proceeded as he did not want to waste time and keep the jury waiting. The jury was sworn and the witnesses were called. I heard their evidence for the first time. I noticed that everyone else in court had their witness statements, the police barristers and the coroner. I was the only one who had no papers. I was hurried by the coroner when I asked questions. When I inquired whether I could see the statements or the police notebook, the other barristers objected. The coroner upheld their objections. During the evidence, it was clear there were contradictions between the evidence that was read and the live evidence, but the coroner did not call the independent evidence. I did not feel brave enough to ask him to do so. The pathologist evidence was equivocal, he was unsure what had caused this death. He thought the drugs had played a part, but also the struggle. He did not consider or comment upon the position the deceased had been restrained in, namely on his front with about four police officers holding him down. I knew nothing about restraint or positional asphyxiation in those early days. At the close of the evidence, I asked about my right to address the jury and was told I had none. I could only address the coroner on the law and verdicts. I sat down as there was not much to say. The jury returned an open verdict. It was an experience I will never forget and I was determined it would never happen again.
Leslie Thomas, Adam Straw and Danny Friedman, Inquests: a practitioner’s guide (2nd edn, LAG, 2008, pages x-xi; reproduced in 3rd edn, LAG, 2014, pages x–xi).
Main image (top left): Zea Wiltshire/zwcreativemedia