Abimbola Johnson is a Black criminal defence barrister, whose experience of the justice system in the UK brings recent events in the US even closer to home
Being Black is my favourite thing about me. My skin, my Yoruba name, they tell the story of my Nigerian heritage. It gives me a shared culture with British-Nigerian people. From the first meeting we can confabulate over small things like sharing tips on which takeaway does the best jollof rice, spotting one another on the dancefloor in a club and mimicking the latest afrobeats dance trend, through to sharing stories about family prayer meetings that run for a comically long period of time.
My experience of navigating through a predominantly white country as a Black woman means that I am sensitive to how matters of identity can affect a person’s life experience, relationships and communication. My blackness and my womanhood are part of what makes me a good barrister.
My blackness also means that often I’m the only person in court that shares skin colour with my clients and there are times when I’ve understood a cultural context to their instructions that has not been picked up by others.
It can be a small detail that changes the entire course of a case. I remember in one instance, the prosecution accused my Black client of encouraging an act to happen, because he’d used the term ‘allow it’ in a text message. Until seeing me, he’d felt too embarrassed to explain that he’d been using it as a slang term which means the opposite: ‘just leave it’ or ‘don’t worry about it.’ I represented familiarity, which put him at ease and let him open up to me. It opened the floodgates for more details which strengthened his defence.
As a barrister, when I see injustice playing out in the Criminal Justice System (CJS), I find it jarring. As a Black barrister, when I see how many of those injustices happen to Black people and people of colour, it jars all the more.
‘My blackness also means that often I’m the only person in court that shares skin colour with my clients’
Black people are overrepresented in the CJS. One reason for this is the overuse of stop and search. Around 3.3 per cent of the population are from Black/Black-British backgrounds. However, in 2018, 22 per cent of stop and searches were conducted on Black suspects.
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This means that when you are Black, your day-to-day life is more likely to be interrupted by the police. I have clients and family members who have lost count of the number of times this has happened to them.
Normally, the reasoning is based on a vague description of a suspect: ‘a Black man in a hoody and jeans’ is a recent example. I contrast this with the experience of my white friends, many of whom have at some stage gone on nights out with drugs for themselves and their friends. Who happily transport those drugs from one place to another with no consequence, confident that frankly, because they are white and ‘well presented’ they will not be stopped by police.
George Floyd’s murder has sparked outrage across the world, bringing discussions around race and justice to the forefront of people’s minds. And while we’re horrified about what has been happening in America, it’s important to stop and look closer to home, to raise awareness about what is happening here.
At the beginning of lockdown, parliament passed the Coronavirus Act 2020 which widened police powers to assist them with slowing the spread of the virus. One such way that these privileges were widened, was the ability to act on a number of newly categorised offences, covering lack of cooperation from people who were ‘potentially infectious’ e.g. people seeming not to comply with directions, reasonable instructions, restrictions or providing false or misleading information.
There were also Regulations (legally binding government rules) passed, creating similar offences for people who were not ‘potentially infectious’ but needed to be dispersed or moved by the police to enforce social distancing. Most of these offences can be punished by issuance of a fine.
Human Rights’ Charity Liberty has found that you are 54 per cent more likely to be fined under these provisions if you are a person of colour, even though the police are encouraged to leave members of public with warnings and to use enforcement as a last resort only.
This means then, the implementation of fines relies on police perceptions of who belongs where and at what time; and on sympathising with the reasons people give for their movements. And so it ensues that if you are visibly of an ethnic minority, the reasons you give are less likely to be met with compassion.
Liberty highlights the example of Shazia Zahieer and Tayyba Arif, who were each fined £60. The sisters were stopped by police a week into lockdown after driving to Preston Docks for a walk. They explained they’d driven there due to Zahieer having a depressive episode and needing fresh air. They were fined on the spot.
‘This means then, the implementation of fines relies on police perceptions of who belongs where and at what time’
After finding representation from Bindmans Solicitors, their fines were overturned. During the publicity around Dominic Cummings’ decision to take an eye-test by driving 30 miles to Barnard Castle with his son and wife in tow, I couldn’t help but notice the stark difference in treatment that he – a white male – received. Particularly when it transpired that the police were put on notice that he and his family had driven from London to Durham at the height of lockdown restrictions.
The Act has also paved the way for wrongful convictions. The results of a Crown Prosecution Service review revealed that, of 200 finalised cases examined, all 44 cases that had charges brought under the Act were wrong and 13 resulted in wrongful convictions. The first of which concerned Marie Dinou, a black woman. Her case caught the attention of Fariha Karim, a Times journalist, and Kirsty Brimelow QC. Ms Dinou was arrested and charged after being found ‘loitering’ at Newcastle train station. She spent two nights in custody before being produced at court.
As she did not speak when asked her name and details, she was sent down to the cells whilst a hearing took place in her absence. During the hearing, without her having a lawyer present and without any evidence being called, she was convicted and fined £660. Marie Dinou did not say a single word from arrest through to sentence.
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Many have wondered why or how this happened. To understand that, we need to look at what has been happening in the CJS for years.
The groundwork for the approach in Ms Dinou’s case was laid through years of emphasis – in the court system, the Magistrates’ Courts in particular – on speedy results at the expense of justice.
Rushed hearings are the norm. The Coronavirus Act was misinterpreted in Ms Dinou’s case – the offence on her charge sheet did not exist because she was not ‘potentially infectious.’ A fact that was not spotted by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, or the district judge that went on to convict her.
Legal aid cuts mean that defendants appearing unrepresented by lawyers happens frequently, so even when they are entitled to a lawyer, seeing a defendant without one no longer seems as unacceptable to the court system as it used to be. Mental health services are also woefully underfunded and undervalued in the CJS. This contributed to a Black defendant who hadn’t spoken for days, with no mental health assessment, being dismissed by the white female district judge as ‘obstructive’.
The foundations for this case were also laid through years of seeing a disproportionate number of people from Black and other minority communities in the dock at court, thus dehumanising them.
Although Ms Dinou’s conviction has thankfully been quashed, her case highlights the radical changes required in our system, before justice can be available to all.
What is positive about each of these cases however, is that public engagement and awareness has helped to scrutinise the systems, to overturn fines and convictions and to push for high profile figures to be better held to account for their actions.
I therefore want to urge members of the public to remain engaged with the system – and make it a long-term habit.
Here are some of the things you can do to help:
•Register to vote: the electoral register is how the system selects people for jury duty
•Widen your reference points: read about the British experiences of people that look and sound different to you, so that you have a better and more inclusive understanding of this country and how it truly operates. A more informed public makes for more informed juries.
•Stay educated: You can do this by regularly reading articles about court cases and results that are published in most broadsheet newspapers. I recommend following barristers, solicitors and legal commentators on Twitter. The legal profession is always keen to keep people informed about good, bad and ugly results.
•Post-lockdown, visit your local Magistrates’ and Crown Courts: Criminal cases are generally held in public, you can watch trials, sentencing hearings, everything in between. You will see the system in action.
•Hold the system accountable and engage with your local community: If you know what is happening, you will know when to write to your MP, when to tweet and when to sign petitions. Those actions really do make a difference, the system is there to serve the public after all.
Lockdown is our chance to shift our focus, to widen our communities, and to show up for one another. Wouldn’t it be great if the legacy of this time is a better understanding of our each other’s identities?