Ethnicity, Accents and the Judiciary


In the UK, when a case comes to court, the assumption is innocence with the burden on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. An outcome must be decided based only on the facts of the case. In 2010, the case of Regina vs Pun  heard at Ipswich Crown Court and involving four members of the same Suffolk family, made me question whether this was in fact the case.

During the trial, it was reported that the counsel for the Crown made a number of remarks of an offensive nature. As all of the defendants in the trial were of Chinese ethnicity, remarks that the defence case was "Hong Kong foo-ey" and that they, the defendants, wanted "their noodles boiled and fried" were derogatory.

It's possible to understand that, although socially unacceptable, language such as this might form part of a private conversation. However, should those words pass my lips in a place of work, I would certainly expect to be subject to disciplinary action at the very least. No successful business could allow itself to be seen as tolerant of racial slurs.

To imply that lawyers may, at times, be pedantic about their language would be a gross understatement. The legal profession necessarily is an industry that is specifically focused upon the precise meaning or intent of wording. Therefore it follows that to choreograph those particular terms, for example using “hong kong foo-ey” as a presentation of one’s own thoughts, would either be an uncharacteristic slip or a calculated step.

The only explanation for such action therefore is that the speaker seeks to highlight colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origins as part of their case against you. Further, to take that step deliberately, for example saying, the defence case was "Hong Kong foo-ey", instead of saying ‘it was flawed’ or that the defendants, wanted "their noodles boiled and fried", instead of that “they want to have it both ways”, certainly suggests intent to use the defendants’ race in a derogatory and insulting manner, intended to their detriment. This is a tool used as a possible route to victory, which might be the lawyer’s job, but is certainly not a permissible method.

One might ask if this matters one jot? Well the right to a fair trial that we are all entitled to leads us also to expect that we will not have our case prejudiced for any reason. Therefore the conduct of the lawyer, as detailed above, seems to work against this expectation and is reprehensible both morally and legally.

Given the clear breach of standards expected of a fair trial, within the workplace and in our society, one might have expected the judge, Judge Thompson to interrupt and castigate the lawyers. The fact that he did not, is of certain detriment to our entire legal system. It is clear though that he did acknowledge that there was a serious issue with the way the prosecution was conducting itself. The Judge chose to highlight the ethnic backgrounds of the lawyers present saying,

"It has been suggested that these defendants are at risk of being treated unfairly, because they are Malaysians of Chinese origin... ...You may think it is interesting in this case to reflect on how many varieties of background we have got in this courtroom, or we have had. Mr Khalil is, I think of Egyptian origin. Mr De Mello is originally from Sri Lanka. Mr Muman is of Indian origin and I think so is Mr Kadri. Mr Brendan Halligan must have some Irish blood in him, but you know he is not Irish, he is Welsh, because his accent gives him away. Mr Macdonald QC is a Scot as you might expect from his name and his accent. Mr Hall is of Afro-Caribbean or of African origin, but his accent is plainly English. Miss Mansoor I think is of Pakistani origin. So, we have just about enough for a cricket World Cup if we allow Mr Morgan, who is not here today to represent England... ...all joking apart, this is a serious matter."

I find this troubling for a number of reasons. The first is obviously that Judge Thompson saw no need to act when first confronted with the objectionable behaviour despite the risk of demonstrably unfair treatment. At best, he's shown that he was not capable of providing a level playing field, given his summing up and “humour” seems to attempt to gloss over the derogatory language used. At its worst, it indicates that he's happy for this to happen within our legal system given his rather jocular, moot handling of the situation.

It seems, by ‘joking’ about the ethnicities and accents of the lawyers, Judge Thompson may have wished to convey a message to the jury that racial remarks made about the defendants was just a bit of courtroom banter, nothing to get 'hot under the collar' about. Racial prejudice can be very subtle. Sometimes, it is not what was said, but what lies between the lines that really carries the true message.

Furthermore, the extraordinary decision by the judge to introduce speculation in relation to the ethnicity of the lawyers at that hearing, made me question further the role of ethnicity within the legal system. It made me question if I was a defendant in a case, whether I'd be letting myself in for a double whammy of prejudice if I didn't choose white, British lawyers as my representation before a white judiciary and most likely a predominantly white jury?

Finally, it would appear that Judge Thompson holds responsibility for Diversity and Community within the region. This role has responsibility for and requires an extra awareness of issues in respect to race. Therefore his handling of this situation is quite incredible.

The Office of Judicial Complaints (OJC) is the quango set up to handle complaints regarding the conduct of holders of judicial office and to provide assistance to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice in the performance of their joint role. Its record in relation to complaints of racial discrimination is that none of those complaints have been upheld. That statistic viewed in light of Regina v Pun 2010 appears to be a tragedy wrapped around a farce and is a pattern that is set to continue. And why not, if you have the confidence that improper conduct will have no adverse consequence? With such a record, can we really trust the OJC to be a credible agent in fulfilling its role in relation to racial discrimination?

In conclusion, the case has highlighted the seriousness of racial bias in the legal system this matter and one real consequence of this failing is that the Chinese community in Suffolk now see Ipswich as a no-go area for justice.

Olivia Boland Chair of Suffolk Chinese Community

Archived Comments

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To whom our Judiciary is answerable and accountable to? -

Will our Judges accept an invitation to have annual dinner with the BME communities? Not in a hundred years, I reckon.

Our Judiciary is neither answerable nor accountable to you and me through our MPs. We are told that this so that they can maintain their independence. Yet they have no problem going to dinner with the bankers year after year.

And where did our bankers hold their last Xmas Ball at £500 a head? The Royal Courts of Justice.

Judicial reform happening soon? Probably not in a hundreds years either, based on the speech gave in July this year by the Lord Mayor of the City to the Judges, at their annual dinner together and before his toast,

"This is a warning against imposing the values of the present onto the events of the past, a warning against seeing history as inexorable progress to modern values and modern institutions – and seeing those values and institutions as immutable. We take them for granted at our peril. History is
thick with well-intentioned reforms with damaging, long term, unexpected consequences."

"Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice, these are serious issues. As I said earlier, our chosen text for this evening shows that events can, unless something is done, develop an uncontrollable momentum which can lead to unwanted, irrecoverable, highly damaging consequences. Realising this in hindsight is realising it too late. Ladies and Gentlemen, one of the most famous descriptions in 1066 And All That is of the system of government introduced by William the Conqueror – under which “everybody had to belong to somebody else and everybody else to the King. This was called the Feutile System …".

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening has nothing “feutile” about it – or feudal, for that matter. This annual celebration of the City’s partnership with the law is one we greatly look forward to – and I am delighted that we have been able to celebrate that partnership together this evening. With that in mind I ask you all to rise while I propose a toast. The toast is: Her Majesty’s Judges."