'˜More needs to be done before we see a real impact on lives of BME people in our communities'

MOST OF the people I grew up with are either dead or in prison. I was very fortunate, I grew up in a strict African family and my parents decided that I would become either a lawyer or a doctor. Personally, I had ambitions to become an athlete.

Tunde Okewale, who was awarded an honorary doctorate of law from Sheffield Hallam University this week.

Unfortunately, many people from poorer communities do not have the same support from their families, teachers or friends. Their plight is made worse by the public institutions they engage with reinforcing the negative, self-limiting beliefs from home. This habitually takes the shape of teachers discouraging children from pursuing certain careers and creating self-limiting beliefs.

This was a reality for me growing up as I often encountered discouragement and bigotry, which was subtly and surreptitiously cloaked as concern by teachers and friends.

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Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and low-income communities are often confronted with this narrative and it easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This may be exacerbated by a lack of diversity in education. According to the Policy Exchange Report Bitter Sweet Success? the ‘minority presence’ in the education profession is less felt when compared to other professions attaining only eight per cent of BME secondary school teachers.

A holistic view needs to be adopted when identifying the causes of and solutions to the over-representation of BMEs in the criminal justice system. I believe there is a link, correlative if not casual, between crime, education and unemployment.

In early 2016 the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, reaffirmed the narrative by saying: “If you’re black, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university. And if you’re black, it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white.”

One of the biggest hurdles to achieving a truly diverse and inclusive justice system has been getting people to realise that creating a diverse legal profession is, in effect, all about change. This is inherently difficult to grasp, particularly in a profession that has been built on tradition and custom.

I believe that the cause of over-representation in the criminal justice system of specific groups is due to under-representation and a lack of diversity of the people administering justice.

At present, people from black and ethnic minority groups make up over a quarter of prisoners in England and Wales, but only 14 per cent of the wider population.

Figures also show that 61 per cent of offenders from black and ethnic minority backgrounds receive jail sentences, compared to 56 per cent of white offenders for the same crime.

There remains an issue in relation to the progression of BME practitioners at the Bar, with only six per cent of QCs declaring that they are BME (compared with 12 per cent of the practising Bar) and 90 per cent declaring that they are white. These figures are the same as they were in 2014.

This indicates an issue in relation to the progression of BME practitioners at the Bar. Diversity in the law is imperative to improving the legal and government infrastructure in the UK.

I established Urban Lawyers in 2010, an organisation which aims to make the law (in its academic, practical and career contexts), more accessible to marginalised groups in society. In 2016, I was delighted to open a Sheffield branch of the Urban Lawyers initiative at Sheffield Hallam University.

Sheffield Hallam is one of the most progressive universities I work with in terms of raising the aspirations of its students who often come from non-traditional backgrounds.

One of the key pieces of work that I have been involved in at the University is its outreach project. I provide training to the students who go out to local schools to deliver practical educational programmes, in order to engage the youth in discussions about their attitude towards law and order.

Urban Lawyers is just one initiative attempting to change the narrative and bring about genuine change – and there are many more initiatives and organisations with similar ambitions throughout the UK. This is, of course, encouraging – but make no mistake, we still have a very long way to go before we see a real impact on the lives of BME people in our communities.

Tunde Okewale is a barrister. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of law from Sheffield Hallam University yesterday.