Sibghat Kadri QC

Primary tabs

This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in September 2007. Read more about Sibghat Kadri QC in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Sibghat Kadri QC, who was a leading authority on immigration and race relations well before there were books and case law in these areas of law. He is the Head of Chambers of 6 King’s Bench Walk and one of the founding members of the Society of Black Lawyers in the 1970s.

Sibghat was born Sibghatullah Kadri in India on 23 April, 1937. He left India with his family and migrated to Pakistan soon after the partition in 1947. The move traumatised Sibghat, describing this period as “losing my childhood as I had to leave my close friends behind”.

At the prompting of his middle class parents who wanted him to be a scientist, Sibghat attended Karachi University in 1956 to read chemistry and mathematics. He was very active in student politics, was arrested and jailed without trial in1958 for opposing the military regime of Pakistan’s Field Marshal Ayub Khan and accused of mobilising students to oppose martial law. He was then the General Secretary of Karachi University Students Union.  The incarceration prevented him from sitting his l B.Sc Honours final exams. An indication of his future role was that he drafted his own Writ of Habeas Corpus and successfully made the application to the Pakistani High Court. 

 Although released from prison after seven months detention, Sibghat was deported from Karachi to Hyderabad in Sindh province in 1959. He was refused exemption and had to repeat his final year. He was again prevented from so doing as he could not complete his degree because of student protests. However in 1960, he had to rush to London with the rest of his family to see his dying sister and nephew.

Sibghat had by now lost interest in science and his earlier successful challenge to his detention by the military government in the Pakistani courts had ignited his interest in law. His brother had already qualified as a barrister and wanted the family to stay in England. This made Sibghat decide to start studying law. It was easier for a poor student to study for the Bar as it could be done part-time. He was successful in getting admission at the Inner Temple to train as a barrister.

In the early 1960s he held several odd jobs while studying, including being a waiter and clerk to make ends meet. He again became active in student politics and continued to campaign against martial law in Pakistan. He became General Secretary of the Pakistan Students’ Federation in Britain between1961-62 and its Vice President the following year. It was at this time that he also met his Finnish wife, Carita. They were married in 1963 and had a son in 1964 and a daughter in 1965. Although he had completed part I of the Bar exams in 1963 Sibghat deferred his final exams due to his family’s financial needs.

Throughout the early to mid-60s, Sibghat was involved in campaigns against racial discrimination where he was often nominated as the spokesperson. His deep and authoritative voice and his fluency in English and Urdu attracted the BBC, and in 1965 he was regularly employed by the BBC as a producer and broadcaster in its external Urdu Service. During 1968-70 he was the presenter of the BBC’s Home Service Asian Programme and during the same period he was also a visiting lecturer in Urdu at Holborn College, London.

By 1968, Sibghat had a level of financial security as result of his job with the BBC and he decided to complete his Bar finals but things had changed. By then the lnns of Court provided proper tutorials for graduates from British universities, virtually all of them English white males. Black and Asian students from the Commonwealth were not given the same facilities. There was no student union in any of the Inns. Sibghat was instrumental in setting up the Bar Reform Committee which organised the first ever sit in at the Inns of Court School of Law. The sit in forced the Bar to allow the establishment of a Students Union at the Inns of Court and this in turn led to other reforms.  Sibghat was elected the President of the Inner Temple Students’ Association defeating John Laws (now Lord Justice Laws).

Again there was the characteristic drama leading to Sibghat’s Call to the Bar in 1969. The Bar students were again protesting and occupying the School of Law and the Inns had threatened that if Sibghat, as the President of the Union, continued to associate himself with them he would not be called to the Bar. His fellow students called off the sit in on the morning of his Call. He was nevertheless disciplined and reprimanded for his activities by his Inn.  It is ironic that he now is a Bencher at the same Inn.

Sibghat had now become a qualified barrister but was not able to secure a pupillage. Historically, most members of the ethnic minorities, once called to the Bar, promptly returned home.

When Sibghat was called in 1969 there were probably around eight or nine Black and Asian barristers, who were practising from a set of chambers established by them at the Lincoln’ Inn.  Sibghat continued to apply to numerous chambers for pupillage and had repeated rejections. One offer he received from a white chamber was withdrawn at the last moment. Even his brother was obstructed when he applied for permission to be his Pupil Master as he was five years qualified. Normally such permission was granted as a matter of course. In this instance, the application, although not rejected, was repeatedly deferred. This went on for two years. Sibghat was finally able to secure a pupillage with Lord Gifford at the Chambers of John Platts-M ills in 1971, two years after his Call.

Remarkably, on the first day of his second six month pupillage, Sibghat conducted a conspiracy trial at the Old Bailey where his Indian client was acquitted. He soon became a very busy barrister. He had a great support from the community. He strongly believes that, “if you support your community, they will support you. The support has to be both in and out of court.”

After completion of his pupillage Sibghat was not able to obtain a tenancy despite making some fifty applications and continued to squat at Lord Gifford’s chambers.

He then decided to set up his own chambers and went on perhaps to become the first person to go straight from being a pupil to being a Head of chambers of 11 King’s Bench Walk. He started the Chambers with a group of six multi-racial tenants, including a fellow political activist, the late Byron Hove from Zimbabwe.

In 1969, he formed the Afro-Asian and Caribbean Lawyers Association with the late Rudy Narayan with whom he was very close. He represented Rudy several times in disciplinary proceedings brought against him by the Bar Council. Both Sibghat and Rudy, together, fought continuous battles against racism in courts and the profession generally

The Afro-Asian and Caribbean Law Association was renamed the Society of Black Lawyers (SBL) with Sibghat as the Chair between 1979 and 1983 and Rudy Narayan its General Secretary. The SBL campaigned against the treatment of ethnic minorities, the behaviour he described as akin to, “ex-colonial masters treating us like second class citizens.” Sibghat said that at that time “all minorities felt united and not angered by being called black”.

Sibghat describes Rudy Narayan as “the best cross examiner”. Sadly he feels that the younger lawyers do not know or remember the early hard struggle of people like him, Rudy and others.  “Black people have forgotten how difficult things were. Even Lord Denning, as brilliant as he was then, was not colour blind”. Sibghat had in fact called for Lord Denning’s resignation following the publication of his book in which Denning adversely commented on the jurors and their acquittal of the defendants in the Bristol riot case. He also made serious allegations of dishonesty amongst the immigrants from the sub-continent. The book was withdrawn and the offending passages were deleted from a consequent edition in which Denning mentioned Sibghat’ role in this matter.

Sibghat says that he “never wants to be part of the establishment” and has therefore never applied to be a recorder and has always defended, never prosecuted.

Sibghat was instrumental in bringing changes to the Bar. By fate yet again, in 1981 when giving a talk at the a race relations seminar funded by the Runnymede Trust,  he spoke against the racism within the Bar and the fact that blacks did not feel comfortable at a Bar which did not represent their views. Those attending included leading lawyers from America, a young Paul Boateng (former MP and now the British High Commissioner to South Africa) and Mr Justice Brown-Wilkinson as he then was. The Honourable judge then followed up with a meeting at Sibghat’s chambers and they were instrumental in setting up a working party on race relations at the Bar. The committee  included seven Black and Asian barristers and seven from the Senate of the Bar. This led to the Bar accepting that there were problems, acknowledging the SBL and setting up the Race Relations Committee which survives till today.

The seventies was a busy time for Sibghat. He was the organiser of the Pakistani Defence Committees during the wave of violence which was referred to as “Paki-bashing” in 1970. He became the General Secretary of the Pakistan Action Committee (SCOPO) in 1973 and it’s Convenor in 1976. In 1975 he became the Secretary General of the Standing Conference of Pakistani Organisation in the UK until 1978 when he was made its President – a post he held until 1990.

Sibghat was heavily involved in the plight of migrant workers and in 1976; he led an Asian delegation to the then Prime Minister about migrant workers. In 1977 he led a Pakistani delegation to the 3rd International Conference on Migrant Workers in Europe in Turin and the following year he became Vice Chairman of an All Party Joint Committee Against Racism until 1980.

He is keen that those younger members of the ethnic minorities who have succeeded at the Bar should remember those in the 1960s’ and 1970s who risked their careers for them. It is not right for them to say, “we are alright”. Sibghat is very keen to pay tribute to the late Rudy Narayan who suffered professionally and financially for his refusal to accept injustice. He gave an example of when he represented Rudy in the 1970s. Rudy had sued the Lord Chancellor under the Race Relations Act as he had been unable to get his expenses paid but a white barrister did. He lost as the Race Relations Act did not apply to the Bar. He regrets that there is little acknowledgment of Rudy’s contribution by those at the Bar today.

Sibghat does a lot of pro bono work and he likes to conduct civil liberty cases because he himself has suffered under martial law. He defended, pro bono,  the Muslim cleric, Shafiq-ur-Rahman, who was alleged to be a threat to national security in the very first case before a special immigration tribunal. Sibghat has not forgotten the plight of his own country and has consistently opposed martial law. He is now the chairman of the UK Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights and Justice in Pakistan. He is proud of the lawyers campaign for the independence of justice in Pakistan. He says “people were vanishing and being handed to the Americans for transportation to Guantanamo Bay. Now that the Chief Justice has been restored there is hope for justice for everyone in that country”. Although secular in his politics, Sibghat condemns the recent incident at the Lal Masjid  (red mosque) in Islamabad in July 2007. He strongly feels that, “an alleged terrorist is just as much entitled to justice as anyone else”.

Sibghat has been involved in many leading cases, including the Bristol Riot,   the Bradford twelve, Newham Eight, the Thornton Heath and the Brixton Riot cases. He also conducted a large number of reported immigration cases. Many of these are cited as authorities in immigration law.

He became a Queen’s Counsel in 1989 and a Bencher in 1997. Sibghat was a member of the Race Relations Committee of the Bar between 1983-85 and 1988-89.

 He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1991.

 Below is our interview with Sibghat.

BLD: Why did you choose a legal career?

SK:  I didn’t choose law, it chose me!


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

SK: I didn’t choose law, as I came to law by accident. Having drafted my own Writ of Habeas Corpus, I became interested in civil liberties. I don’t think I would have been a successful scientist– this was what my father wanted. If I had to choose, maybe I’d be a journalist. I wrote a column when I was at Karachi University. However, whatever I chose, I could never have been an employee.


BLD : What was the best career advice you were given?
SK: I didn’t receive any, my parents decided for me.


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

SK:  I can’t think of any.


BLD : What career advice would you give to others?
SK:   Don’t come to the Bar thinking it’s the best way to make money. Unless you do commercial law, there is very little money to be made as legal aid has been squeezed. If I were to start again, I would be a solicitor. Also be prepared to work at short notice, you need a very disciplined mind and a commitment to law.


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

SK:   Nelson Mandela. Here’s a man who suffered the most by hateful prison officers who behaved like they were superior because they were white. He never lost his commitment or courage. When he became President, he could have been vengeful but he chose reconciliation.  Mandela did not lose his faculty in solitary confinement and still believed in his cause. He was a leader who was asked by his nation to hang on to power, but he relinquished it. His concept of Truth and Reconciliation healed the wounds of his nation. He is a beacon of light for all those fighting for their rights.


BLD : How do you see the future for black and ethnic minority lawyers doing legal aid work given the potentially catastrophic effect of the Carter reforms?
SK: Things are really not looking good for most lawyers especially those who are at the beginning of their careers.


BLD : What do you think are the current challenges facing those joining the Bar now?
SK:  The main hurdle is to find pupillage. Those lucky enough to be taken on then face having to get a permanent tenancy in chambers where there is enough work for juniors. In any event, legal aid is becoming very restricted even in criminal cases.


BLD: What can be done about it?

SK: There is a real need to deal with the problem of pupillages. This affects all newcomers but women and ethnic minority applicants are particularly vulnerable.  There have been many improvements but there is still disadvantage and discrimination. The requirement to pay pupils has made ethnic minorities worse off as chambers excuse themselves by saying  “we can’t afford it”. The Race Relation’s Act was amended to include discrimination in the legal profession and has helped, but it does not allow affirmative action which I have always believed is necessary to deal with this problem.


BLD : What are you most passionate/happiest about?

SK:  My two grandchildren. I myself didn’t have a proper childhood.  As a parent, I was so busy when my children were growing up.


BLD : What are your dislikes?
SK:  Hypocrisy. It leads to backbiting and all kinds of negative behaviour. It is better to be straightforward.


BLD : What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
SK:   The worst moment has always been when the jury retires and I am awaiting the verdict.


BLD : Tell us your professional high point(s).
SK:  In the 70’s when I was doing leading immigration and public law cases. At that time I was defending my community both in the courts and on the streets. I was calling a spade a spade and I didn’t mind people calling me “a troublemaker”. Now things have changed; my chambers are big, more a business, less of a campaign headquarters!


BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
SK:    So many. If a criminal case, then it’s the Bradford Twelve as the case extended the meaning of self-defence to include community defence.


BLD : Any professional regrets?
SK: If I had, I would not tell you!


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

SK:  In a day, what can I change? I’d let people have at least some of what they yearned for so that after that day they can say I made a change. I am not talking of bad things but for example of the very poor, for them not to be.