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Judge Who Could Have Been a Hairdresser

Judge Who Could Have Been a Hairdresser
Her Honour Anuja Dhir QC (centre) with the winners of a moot court competition

At 49, Anuja Ravindra Dhir became the first non-white judge to sit at the Central Criminal Court of London. But it wasn’t easy as she had to face many hurdles

~By Sajeda Momin in London

Anuja Ravindra Dhir has made legal history in the United Kingdom by becoming the first non-white judge to sit at the Central Criminal Court of London. At 49, the Indian-origin woman is also the youngest circuit judge at the court famously known as the Old Bailey.

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the Right Honourable Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd appointed Her Honour Judge Dhir QC to be a Circuit Judge at the Central Criminal Court and she donned her robes from February 2017.

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Born in the coastal city of Dundee in eastern Scotland to Indian immigrant parents, Dhir was a gutsy girl from a young age. She studied at Harris Academy in Dundee, founded in 1885, but this became a government-run comprehensive school in the 1970s. Though Dhir suffered from dyslexia and therefore, found it difficult to read and write, she dreamed of a legal career from an early age.

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.

Her Honour Judge Anuja Ravindra Dhir,
on the problems she encountered in courts

“When I went to school in the 1970s in Scotland, women were not encouraged to aim high. Moreover, I wasn’t the cleverest person in my year and I’m dyslexic. 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,” recalls Dhir. But she proved her teachers wrong and went to Dundee University from where she graduated in English and Scottish Law.

Overcoming her learning difficulties was a personal hurdle but she still had some major institutional ones to cross. She won a scholarship and went to Gray’s Inn in London and was called to the bar in 1989. In those days, most barristers in the UK were white men, educated first at expensive private schools. They then went on to Oxford or Cambridge University, and already had “some connection” with the profession. Dhir was none of the four.

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In an interview to BBC, Dhir said that while forging her career as a barrister with the crown courts, she regularly faced discrimination both because she was brown and a woman, and quickly learnt never to expect to be treated like her “white Oxbridge, male counterparts”. Things are different today, according to Dhir. “It would never cross my daughter’s 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,” adds the mother of three.

Though Dhir suffered from dyslexia and found it difficult to read and write, she dreamed of a legal career from an early age. She went to Dundee University to study English and Scottish Law.

“There are so few women from certain communities at the top of professions because on the one hand, there were barriers for people who were different, but on the other hand, there were many communities who did not encourage females to study,” continues Dhir in her thick Scottish accent, very obviously alluding to the communities from the Indian subcontinent. She mentions that she had to break many personal barriers too before she could achieve her dream.

Recalling the early days of her career, Dhir said she used to have problems just getting into the courtroom. “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,” she recounted. Security men at the courts often wouldn’t believe she was a barrister and once she was even forced to show them her wig and black gown before they actually permitted her into the building.

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Building a client base was also very difficult in the beginning, as “most clients did not want a young Asian Scottish female representing them”, she said. Dhir practiced both as a prosecutor and defense counsel for 23 years. She took silk in 2010 (award of Queen’s Counsel is known informally as taking silk). In 2009, she was appointed as a Recorder and in 2012, a Circuit Judge. Commenting on Dhir’s achievement, Sir Henry Brooke, a retired British judge and former Chair of the Bar Council’s Race Relations Committee, said: “It is sad that it has taken nearly 25 years before an Asian lawyer (and a woman, too) was appointed a full-time judge at the Old Bailey, but it is thrilling that I have seen this happen in my lifetime.”

Despite the progress highlighted by Dhir’s career path, the judiciary was embroiled in allegations of racism just recently after a black judge was disciplined for declaring that “racism is alive and well” among his colleagues.

In 1834, the Central Criminal Court Act established the Old Bailey as the principal court for London and the South East circuit. Comprising of 18 courts spread over three floors, it is Britain’s leading criminal court. The oak-panelled courtrooms that have been the setting for some of the most infamous trials in world criminal history will finally have at least one brown woman presiding over it.