Mrs Justice Dobbs DBE

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in October 2009. Read more about Mrs Justice Dobbs DBE in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month this Month is the Honourable Mrs Justice Dobbs DBE, who made legal history five years ago in October 2004 when she became Britain’s first (and so far, the only) non-white High Court judge. She is also the only non-white High Court judge out of the 15 female High Court judges – five of whom were appointed in 2009. Linda has many titles and accolades, including Queen’s Counsel, a number of doctorates 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 (male and female) form 3 per cent of the 653 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 to Linguistic and Regional Studies and went on to read Russian and Law at the University of Surrey, graduating in 1976. She did her Master in Laws at the London School of Economics, which included Human Rights Law, and then went to do a Doctorate (PhD) 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 18 Red Lion Court Chambers, her practice was predominantly in 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 Queen’s 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 lawyers and judges, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean.

She is very committed to equality and diversity and is the 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 and is Chair of the Magisterial Committee of the Judicial Studies Board. 

Linda is passionate about helping the young and, to this end, works tirelessly in helping to link lawyers  aspiring to a judicial career and judges as well as welcoming schoolchildren and students into her courtroom.

Between 2003 and 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.

Linda was named one of the 100 Great Black Britons and is also in The Times List of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers. She also won the title of the New Nation Role Model of the Year in 2003.

Below 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 sound 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 confident that you will be the first of many to come. Why do you think that five years later you are still the only one?
LD: The simple answer is that I don't know, but I think that there are a number of reasons, including issues of access to quality work and the attrition rates in the professions amongst women and BME practitioners. There is limited research on the topic, even taking into account the recent research done by Hazel Genn and the research commissioned by the JAC (Judicial Appointments Commission). It is apparent, that so far as senior appointments are concerned, very few candidates are applying. Whilst the recent research by Hazel Genn may give us some pointers, the overall sample was small and the minority ethnic sample was very small. I think that in-depth, targeted research is needed to get a better feel of why so few are applying.
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 pays 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 the Senior Liaison Judge for Diversity is encouraging more people from the under-represented groups to consider either salaried or fee-paid judicial appointment. This is an ongoing challenge which requires unswerving commitment, including ensuring that those with similar responsibilities work together to ensure that we meet the challenge effectively.

BLD: What are the greatest issues/challenges on diversity that the judiciary need to tackle now?
LD: Ensuring that the judiciary is, and appears, welcoming for those from non-traditional backgrounds. Also, encouraging and supporting people interested in joining the judiciary.

BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
LD:  We all have had awful moments. The first was when, as a pupil, I received a note from the magistrates’ court clerk, in the middle of my plea in mitigation for an eight month pregnant serial shoplifter, telling me that the chairman of the bench was a shop owner. Then for my client, when passing a sentence of imprisonment, the chairman of the bench paused for what seemed an inordinate period of time (during which my client was on the brink of passing out) before announcing that the sentence was to be suspended.

BLD: Tell us about your professional high point(s).
LD:  When the father of one of the defendants I was prosecuting came up to me after the case and thanked me for being such a fair prosecutor. This was despite the fact that his son was convicted. It was a case where the judge (long since retired) was pressing me to adduce some prejudicial but barely relevant material, a route down which I declined to go.
BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
LD:  Each case has its own interest. As for famous cases, I have had a number reported in the press, but to be honest, I always preferred not to be reported and have not kept a scrap book!

BLD: Any professional regrets?
LD: Would I have been a great opera or jazz singer? I don’t know, probably not, but there is no point in having regrets.

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
LD:  Pro bono work, good wine and beautiful South African landscapes.

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.