Old Bailey's first non-white circuit judge 'expected to meet discrimination'

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The Old Bailey's first non-white circuit judge never expected to be treated like her "white Oxbridge male" counterparts when she was called to the bar in 1989.

As a barrister forging her career in the crown courts, Anuja Ravindra Dhir QC was once forced to produce her wig and gown just to convince security to let her through the gates.

But now, she has risen to the top of her profession as the youngest circuit judge currently sitting at the historic Central Criminal Courts in London. 

In an interview with the Press Association, the 49-year-old judge smiled as she told of the "incredible" changes over the last 30 years.

She said: "My daughter, it would never cross her mind being treated differently because she's a female or because she's not white, whereas in my generation we did.

"We were surprised when people didn't treat us differently. Not now, but when I came to the bar, I was not expecting to be treated like a white Oxbridge male at all.

"So expectations have changed. That's a lot to be done over 30 years."

Recalling her school days, Judge Dhir, originally from Dundee, said she was steered towards a career in hairdressing when she told her teacher she wanted to go to university. 

"I wasn't the cleverest person in my year at school. I'm dyslexic so I find it difficult to read and write. And when I went to school in the 1970s in Scotland, women were not encouraged to aim high.

"When I first said to a teacher at school I wanted to go to university when I was older, she told me that I should aim a little lower and suggested I try hairdressing instead."

She grew up expecting discrimination and had to break down personal and social barriers to make her way in a profession dominated by white, public school-educated men.

She said: "There are so few women from certain communities at the top of professions because, on the one hand, there were barriers for people who are different, but on the other hand, there were many communities who did not encourage females to study.

"I grew up expecting some form of discrimination. When I came to the bar most of the bar was male, white, public school and they had some connection already with the profession. Now that's four differences already before we start.

"Added to that, most clients did not want a young Asian Scottish female representing them so that made it harder for me to build a client base.

"I remember going to a crown court out of London and the security, the man at the gate, didn't believe I was a barrister and in the end I had to show him my wig and gown before they would actually let me in to the building.

"And I got used to turning up at courts and people saying to me 'Witness? - no - Defendant? - no' and looking rather surprised when I said I was the advocate.

"I'm often asked if there is a glass ceiling. I think sometimes there are two ceilings - or no glass ceiling at all.

"There is one glass ceiling that's in our minds, that's what we think we can achieve so perhaps we impose our glass ceiling and that has happened to me several times."

The Old Bailey houses 15 judges, of whom 10 are men and five are women, including one who is due to start soon. And of the recent intake of Old Bailey judges, three out of six are women.

Judge Dhir said: "Child-friendly policies I think are important. As a society we are better at raising that now than we ever have been before."

She praised the Recorder of London, Judge Nicholas Hilliard QC, for his commitment to change at the Old Bailey, a building steeped in history and tradition dating back to medieval times.

She said: "I've been overwhelmed by the commitment to change that I have seen people here at the Old Bailey have.

"And in particular the Recorder of London who has actively encouraged young people from diverse backgrounds to come in to the Old Bailey to see what we do here so as to let them see what opportunities there are."