Mrs Justice Dobbs

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In Focus this month is the Honourable Mrs Justice Dobbs DBE, who became Britain’s first (and so far, the only) non-white High Court judge in October 2004. She is also the only non-white High Court judge out of the 10 female High Court judges. She has many titles and accolades, including Queen’s Counsel, a doctorate and a Dame.

In 2004 at the time of her appointment, Linda Dobbs said that it was a great honour to become the first ethnic minority High Court judge but that she “would be one of the first of many to come”. The extent of her achievement is considerable, beyond being the first to go above the rank of a circuit judge because at that level, ethnic minorities form 1.4% of the 623 posts in England and Wales.


Linda  was born in Sierra Leone in 1951 to a Sierra Leonean mother and an English father.  Her father was a lawyer and later a High Court judge in Sierra Leone. Her early education was in Sierra Leone but she later attended boarding School at Moreton Hall in England. Linda’s first love was music and she went on to read Music at Edinburgh  University, despite the family’s hope that she would read Law. After a year studying music she decided that, given the exceptional talent she saw amongst some of her peers, a career as a musician would be foolish. She changed course toLinguistic and Regional Studies and went on to read Russian and Law at the University of Surrey graduating in 1976. She did her Masters in Law at the London School of Economics, which included Human Rights Law, and then went to do a Doctorate (Ph. D) in Soviet Criminology and Penology.  

Linda thought that she wanted to be an academic rather than a practising lawyer. However, encouraged by her family, she sat the Bar exams and was called to the Bar in 1981. She did her pupillage at the Chambers of the then Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers QC.


Linda specialised in criminal law, and as a member of criminal set at 18 Red Lion Court, her practice was predominantly in crime (white collar crime, Customs and Excise offences and serious sexual offences, acting for both prosecution and defence). She had considerable experience of various professional disciplinary tribunals, including sitting as a Legal Assessor for the General Medical, General Dental and General Osteopath Councils. She also acted pro bono in Privy Council, defending those facing the death sentence. She became a Queen’s Counsel in 1998.  

Linda was a member of a number of Bar Council committees, including General Management, Race Relations (of which she was previously Chair) and International Relations (Chair of the Africa Sub-Committee). She was also a past Chair of the Professional Standards Committee and the Criminal Bar Association, standing down from the latter when she was appointed a High Court judge. She was appointed to the Queens Bench Division, and when not on circuit, sits predominantly in the Administrative Court and the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal.


She is a contributing editor to a number of legal publications and has lectured extensively to university and bar students, magistrates, police and other professionals. She also undertakes pro bono work helping to train young lawyers and advocates in Africa, including in South Africa where she has a house.

  She is very committed to equality and diversity and is a Senior Liaison Judge for Diversity. She supports the work of Operation Black Vote and Proud. (the latter is the Ministry of Justice Black staff network). She is involved in many initiatives raising awareness about the judiciary. She is also the C hair of the Magisterial Committee of the Judicial Studies Board.  

Linda is passionate about helping the young and, to this end, tireless in helping to link aspiring lawyers and judges to those more senior as well as welcoming schoolchildren into her courtroom. These works are done largely unnoticed, behind the scenes and shunning publicity or accolade for so doing. In 2003-2004 she and leading black QC Courtenay Griffiths backed a Magistrates Shadowing Scheme by hailing it as a role model for a more inclusive and representative judiciary. The nationwide scheme allowed almost 100 people from black and minority ethnic communities to shadow more than 200 magistrates for a period of six months. She is one of the few judges who opens her courts to aspiring judges for shadowing outside the Ministry of Justice-approved scheme.


Linda was named one of the 100 Great Black Britons and was the New Nation Role Model of the Year in 2003.

B elow is our interview with Linda:   

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

LD: Play with a straight bat.


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

LD: You need to be tall, blonde and beautiful to make it!


BLD: What was the best career advice you will give to others?

LD: Know yourself. Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. Be determined, but patient.


BLD: If you were to choose another job/role, other than what you doing, what would it be and why?

LD: Trouble-shooting justice systems. A solid justice system is the bedrock for our rights and responsibilities.


BLD: The person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?

LD: Apart from the usual heroes (Martin Luther King, Mandela, Tutu) brave women like Beatrice Mtetwa from Zimbabwe and Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba from Cameroon, who work fearlessly, often risking their lives to bring rights to the disenfranchised.


BLD : On your historical appointment in October 2004, you said that you were c onfident that you will be the first of many to come. Why do you think that three years later you are still the only one?

LD:   The simple answer is that I don’t know. I think that there are a number of reasons, but until there is some more research done on the subject, it would be mere speculation on my part to comment as to what the reasons may be. I believe  that in the recent high court competition there were only 3 applicants from BME backgrounds, of which one was short-listed and none placed on the “appointable” list. Looking at those figures, it means that presently, practitioners are not applying. We need to find out why.


BLD: Please tell us your views about what practical steps the legal profession and users of legal services can take to ensure that organisations pay more than lip-service to diversity?

LD: It is the organisations and users of legal services which should be ensuring that the legal profession pay more than lip-service to diversity by ensuring that their stated commitment to diversity is, in fact, being put into action.


BLD: The most famous/interesting/challenging diversity issues you have had to tackle in your professional role to date.

LD: My biggest challenge as Senior Liaison Judge for Diversity is encouraging more people from the under-represented groups to consider either salaried or fee-paid judicial appointment.


BLD: What are the greatest issues/challenges on diversity that the judiciary need to tackle now?

LD : Same as the issues I have tackled in my professional role to date, that  is encouraging under-represented groups


BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?

LD: Pro bono work. Good wine.


BLD: What are your dislikes/makes you angry?

LD: Injustice of any kind.


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

LD: Empower the severely disadvantaged. Give them a chance to achieve.