John Roberts QC

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in October 2010. Read more about John Roberts QC in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is John Roberts QC, who has made legal history four times. He became the first known person of African ancestry to be appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1988 and became the first known person of African ancestry to become Head of Chambers in 1975. He was also the first person of African ancestry to be made a Recorder of the Crown Court (1987) and to be appointed by the British Government as a High Court Judge in The Supreme Courts of the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla, British West Indies (1992).

John, who was 82 in May this year, is a Master Bencher at Gray’s Inn and is also a member of Lincoln’s Inn. He has now retired from private practice and received his second honorary doctorate from Thames Valley University in October 2009.
John was born in Sierra Leone on 17 May 1928. His American-born great grandfather, Joseph Jenkins Roberts, was the first President of Liberia. John’s father was Brazilian and his mother was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 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 came to the UK in 1952 to join the Royal Air Force and after a distinguished 10-year career returned to Sierra Leone after being invited by the then Prime Minister to work for the country’s Aviation Service.
John returned to England in 1964 with his Jamaican-born wife, Eulette, whom he had married in 1961, and their son, Tony, who was born in Sierra Leone. Whilst working as a Civil Servant, he began to read Law part-time at the Inns of Court School. He was called to the Bar (Gray’s Inn) in 1969 and the following year helped set up 9 Stone Buildings Chambers. In 1975 he established his own Chambers, 2 Stone Buildings.
He ensured that his own set of Chambers was fully representative, mixed and diverse with Asian, white and African and Caribbean members. Allegedly, 2 Stone Buildings accepted seven female barristers at one time in 1975 – a record during that era.
John was appointed as an Assistant Recorder (a part-time judge of the Crown Court) in 1983 and became a Recorder in 1987. The following year he became the first person of African ancestry to be appointed as 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 and between 1990 and 1992 he was a tutor at the Inns of Court School of Law in London, concentrating on advocacy. In 1991 he was also made an Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
John 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.
He became a Freeman of the City of London in 1996, was made an Honorary Citizen of the British Virgin Islands in 2000 and was then awarded an Honorary Doctorate at City University in 1996.
In 1998, at the age of 70, he retired from the Bench as a Recorder, as is the requirement. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and remains a door tenant at Warwick Court Chambers.
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.
He 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 RAF boxer and sprinter, and used to enjoy flying light aircraft  - a hobby which age forced him to give up a few years ago.
When interviewed live by Segun Osuntokun (now a partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner) at the BLD Black History Month Event in October 2006, John’s 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 is married with a son and has two grandchildren.
Below is our interview with John (which was originally in October 2008):
BLD: How different is the Bar today compared to when you were called to the Bar in 1969?
JR:  The method of selection for pupillage 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 anymore.”  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 most passionate/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.