Dr John Anthony Roberts QC

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in October 2008. Read more about Dr John Anthony Roberts QC in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Dr John Anthony Roberts QC. John was born in Sierra Leone on 17 May 1928. His great grandfather Joseph Jenkins Roberts, born in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, was the first President of Liberia, and his grandfather, John Anthony Roberts (Snr.), born in Liberia, was a cable engineer who worked in many countries including Brazil, America and in England, between 1891 and 1892. John’s father, John Anthony Roberts (Jnr.), was a Brazilian, and John’s mother, born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was a descendant of “liberated” Africans, who chose to return to Africa after the Slave Trade. In the 1940s John worked as a Costs Clerk for Taylor Woodrow in Sierra Leone and then as a Civil Servant. 

He was fascinated by airplanes, having seen members of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Sierra Leone during the Second World War. He came to the UK in 1952 to join the RAF, where he first qualified as an accountant.  Later, he was selected for aircrew duties.  John remained in the RAF until 1962, serving in Europe, the Near East, the Far East and the South Pacific etc.  He was invited by the then Prime Minister of Sierra Leone to work in the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Service, where he worked in the Air Traffic Control Services Department between 1962 and 1964.

John returned to England in 1964 with his wife, Eulette, a Jamaican and their son Tony, who was born in Sierra Leone. John and Eulette were married in 1961. He worked as Civil Servant in the UK between 1964 and 1969 and in 1966, he started to read law, as he said he: “Loves helping people.” He read law part-time at the Inns of Court School of Law whilst working and was Called to the Bar (Gray’s Inn) in 1969, becoming a Master of Bench in 1996. In 1972 he also became a Member of Lincoln’s Inn.

In 1970 John helped set up Chambers at 9 Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn. In 1975 he left 9 Stone Buildings to set up his own Chambers at 2 Stone Buildings. He ensured that his set of Chambers was fully representative, mixed and diverse with Asian, white and African and Caribbean members. He left 2 Stone Buildings in 1992 when he became a High Court Judge in The Supreme Courts of the British Virgin Islands, and Anguilla, both British West Indies Dependent Territories. He tried many high profile cases, including homicide.

John was made an Assistant Recorder (a part-time judge of the Crown Court) in 1983 and became a Recorder in 1987. In 1988, John became the first person of African ancestry to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel at the English Bar.

Apart from the English Bar, John has also been called to the Bars of 10 other countries: Jamaica (1973), Sierra Leone (1975), Trinidad & Tobago (1978), Bahamas (1984), St Kitts & Nevis (1988), Antigua (2002), Barbados (2002), Bermuda (2003), Anguilla (2006) and Grenada (2007). This may well be a record.

He was made a Bencher of the Council of Legal Education in Sierra Leone in 1990. Between 1990 and 1992 he was a tutor at the Inns of Court School of Law in London, concentrating on Advocacy.

John was a former President of the British West Indian Ex-Servicemen and Ex-Service Women’s Association and former joint President of the British Caribbean Association, UK.

In 1991 he was made an Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He became a Freeman of the City of London in 1996, made an Honorary Citizen of the British Virgin Islands in 2000 and then awarded an Honorary Doctorate at City University in 1996.

In 1998, aged 70, John retired from the Bench as a Recorder, as is the requirement. He was 80 in May this year and recently retired from private practice. He is a  fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and still sits as an arbitrator and remains a door tenant at Warwick Court Chambers.

He is a John is a keen pianist, organist, guitarist and choir singer and a firm believer that “you are never too old to learn”. He loves reading, dancing and music. He is a member of the Guild of Freemen, a former boxer and sprinter in the RAF, who enjoys flying light aircrafts (which he gave up a few years ago).

John became a “first” in a few categories:

  • The first known person of African ancestry to be the Head of his Chambers in England and Wales
  • The first person of African ancestry to be made a QC in England and Wales
  • The first person of African ancestry to be made a Recorder of the Crown Court in England and Wales
  • The first person of African ancestry be appointed by the British Government to a dependent territories as a High Court Judge of the Supreme Courts of the British Virgin Islands, and Anguilla,  British West Indies.
  • The first Head of Chambers to allegedly accept seven female barristers at one time in 1975. A record during that era.

When interviewed live by Segun Osuntokun at the BLD Black History Month Event in October 2006 hosted by Clifford Chance, his account of some of his experiences in the RAF and at the Bar brought the house down and left everyone, including the keynote speaker, Shami Chakrabarti, in stitches.

John has been married for almost 47 and has a son, Tony, a 16-year-old grand-daughter Lauren, a 13- year-old grandson and a daughter-in-law, Sandra.

Below is our interview with John:

BLD: How different is the Bar today compared to when you were called to the Bar in 1969?

JR:  The method of selection for pupilage is very different now.  It seems to hold back lots of good prospective Barristers from entering the profession for which they built up their ambitions for years.  Some Chambers would like to take pupils, but they cannot, because of their financial inability to pay pupils as required.   Of course, this affects a lot of overseas students.  All these things hold back some of the best people. This is because no pupillage means you cannot be called to the Bar and not being called to the Bar means you do not have any right to practice at the Bar.  Effectively, your ambition to practice is killed.

BLD: There must have been some pretty funny or weird (or both!) moments/experience at the Bar. Can you recall one or two of those moments?

JR: Yes, many! I recall one incident when I had just finished my pupillage and I was looking for a tenancy when a clerk said to me: “Sorry, Sir, with you being black, solicitors won’t brief you. If they do, I will eat my hat!” Eighteen or 19 years later, when I took Silk, I saw him at the House of Lords with his barristers. He came over and shook my hand and said: “Congratulations Sir. I knew you would make it!” As he turned to go away, I called him back and said to him: “I notice you don’t wear your hat any more.”  He remembered and said he was sorry and that he wished he had not said that to me all those years ago. I advised him never to judge a book by its cover.

BLD: You are now nearly 80 years old and have been working and/or studying now for some six decades and still practising as an arbitrator, any plan of retiring?

JR: Oh no!  Not deep down, for what is in the bone will come out of the flesh. I will always be a lawyer until the day I die. Many people, like Lord Denning, never gave up.  

BLD: You were an accountant, then an air traffic controller, a pilot and a lawyer, which of the four did you prefer and why?

JR: I prefer them all! They all made me who I am today.  Each of these professions has given wealth of experience.  They have enabled me to understand and help so many “peoples” of this world.

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?

JR: No matter how high you go in the world, never forget where you came from. Be humble and always sleep with one eye open.  Do not forget  that you are an officer of the Court.  Represent whatever side you are without fear or favour.  Be honest with yourself.  Always be respectful, even to the other side.

BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?

JR: I was told not to bother to practise law after my pupillage, but instead to go back to the Civil Service.  I smiled because I knew what I wanted in life.  I ignored any discouragement.

BLD: What is the best career advice you will give to other lawyers and budding lawyers?

JR: Listen and learn from others (sense or nonsense). Observe the ethics of good standards of the Bar and pay attention to the profession. Do not forget a client is the boss. Be respectful to your colleagues, be of good cheer and maintain self-respect and discipline. 

BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?

JR: My Brazilian father, my Creole mother and well as my great-grandparents and grandparents. Because they taught us how to cook, iron and do the housework – effectively taught us to be self-sufficient. They also taught us about family unity, which is crucial to the Roberts’ family, of which I am now the oldest surviving member (The Patriarch).   I have been to over 50 countries now and I believe that the teachings of my parents and grandparents are always with me.

BLD: Tell us your legal professional high point(s).

JR: When I was appointed by The British Government as a  High Court Judge of the Supreme Courts of The British Virgin Islands, and Anguilla, British West Indies.

BLD: What was your worst case/worst moment as a lawyer?

JR: I remember once, when I was appearing in court, in the early 70s and I was making a submission when the Circuit Judge told me to: “Shut up, and sit down!” As I had always been taught in the RAF, you respect the office although you may not necessarily respect the person. I did sit down and shut up. Then the Judge proceeded to call each barrister and asked each one certain questions. I was aware that he was addressing a question to me, but I have always been very good at playing dumb and simply looked towards the window. My fellow barrister nudged me, informing me that the Judge was addressing me. I said, very loudly, and clearly that I never disobey an order and I had been told to shut up and sit down!  When he learnt that I was going to report him to the Bar Council,  he wrote to me and apologised.  I wrote to him and accepted his apology, and even stated that I looked forward to  appearing in front of him again.  A few weeks later, a case, in which I was Counsel, was listed before the same Judge.  Surprise! Surprise!  The Clerk of the Court said to me that the said Judge’s list was full, and instead the case was transferred  to another Judge. The lesson is never have any argument   with any Judge in Court or anywhere. I could tell a lot of bad experiences, but the good ones do surpass the bad ones.  I do not dwell on negatives.

BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?

JR: There were quite a few of my cases, which some people thought were famous or interesting.  I did cases to attain justice to the satisfaction of my clients, but not to glorify myself.  They were the ones to say.  I am sure that each case I did was famous/interesting to the client when we had a good result.  The ones that stick in my mind were:  R  v  Rapier  (1980)   70 Cr. App. R.17, R. v  El-Hakkoui  (1975)  60 Cr. App. R. 281(Court  of App. and H.L.) and R  v  Effik  and Mitchell  (1992)  95 Cr. App. R.  427 C A and R v Simbodyal   (1991) The Times, October 10, 1991, C.A.

BLD: What are you mostpassionate/happy about?

JR: When justice is done in a case.

BLD: What are your dislikes?

JR: Unfriendliness and disrespect, especially shown by some lawyers which they may not show to the majority. Also when lawyers lack discipline and try to pull a fast one.

BLD: Do you have any professional regrets?

JR: None at all!

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?

JR: I would legislate for peace, unity and respect for others. I would ensure there is love and no wars; and have a happy world where we join hands together.  Togetherness will be my priority.