Celebrating Black Pioneers in Legal History
8 November 2022
Although Black History Month may have passed for this year, we have written two blogs looking at people of colour and the legal world. Firstly, we wanted to highlight some of the Black pioneering figures who have made legal history. We also wanted to look at the present-day realities and recent experiences of our colleagues in Chambers.
Christian Frederic Cole
In terms of significant figures from Black legal history, it seems sensible to start with Christian Frederic Cole, the first black barrister in England.
Born in Sierra Leone in 1852 and the grandson of a slave, Mr Cole came to England in 1873 and studied classics at the University of Oxford. Mr Cole was not wealthy but was able to support himself during his studies by teaching music and preparing new students for entrance exams. When he graduated, he was the first Black African to be awarded a degree from the university.
Mr Cole was called to the Bar in 1883.
Eric Irons OBE
Another significant name is Eric Irons OBE, Britain’s first black magistrate and a prominent campaigner for social justice.
Born in Jamaica in 1921, Mr Irons served in the RAF and first came to the UK from the Caribbean during WWII and settled in Nottingham.
Mr Irons was instrumental in many progressive initiatives for the Black community in Nottingham, most notably perhaps, in 1952 when he secured improved working opportunities, health and education from Nottingham and District Trade Council for his Black colleagues at Chilwell Ordnance Depot.
A decade later Irons became Britain’s first Black Magistrate and continued in his role at the bench until he retired in 1991.
Mr Irons was awarded an OBE in 1977 for his work, which was recognised again in 2019 with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque outside former Shire Hall Courts (now National Justice Museum), where he heard his first cases as a magistrate.
Dame Linda Dobbs DBE
Staying with the judiciary, Dame Linda Dobbs DBE was, in 2004, the first person of colour to become a High Court Judge in the UK.
This appointment followed a successful career at the Bar and a year as Chair of the Criminal Bar Association from 2003 where she set up its first Equality and Diversity sub-committee.
Dame Dobbs stepped down as a High Court Judge in 2013 and was listed in the 100 Great Black Britons 2020.
I. Stephanie Boyce
A more recent pioneer still, in the Black legal community, is I. Stephanie Boyce last year became the first person of colour, and the first Black person, to be elected President of the Law Society of England and Wales. Ms Boyce completed her term as President earlier this month.
Ms Boyce holds a Master of Laws in public law and global governance (merit) from King’s College, London and extensive experience in corporate governance, commercial, civil, public and regulatory law. She has advised some of the largest not-for-profit bodies, charities, regulators, and local and central government.
And finally, to bring this timeline right up to date, Jessikah Inaba has, at 23, become the first Black and blind barrister in Britain.
It took Ms Inaba five years of studying, using Braille throughout, to complete her course. She faced delays in sourcing key texts in a format accessible to her and Ms Inaba even had to create her own Braille materials from lecture notes, and passages which she asked her friends to read aloud to her.
The people celebrated above, like all pioneers, have overcome hurdles, stigmas, glass ceilings to be the first in their positions. However, the fact that these “firsts” are still happening in 2022, indicates that there are still significant issues in terms of prejudice and discrimination within the legal professions when it comes to Black people and people of colour in general.
Black History Month 2022 has now come to an end, but resources and information are still available. For more information go to blackhistorymonth.org.uk/