‘Shouting about things from the outside wasn’t as effective as being a lawyer’
Leslie Thomas QC has had to break barriers, smash ceilings and take on the establishment to achieve his personal and professional goals
By Chris Moss
Leslie Thomas QC has spent his entire life fighting for the underdog – beginning with himself. His new book, Do Right and Fear No One, is part personal memoir, part professional record of the trials and tribulations of being a Black barrister in a system that is largely white, very exclusive and grindingly slow to embrace change. For any newly qualified lawyers aiming to specialise in civil liberties and human rights, the book also serves as a hands-on manual and a warning: it won’t be easy. A blistering argument for a level playing field, it’s also a frank account of successes and failures.
Thomas was born in 1965 to parents from the Caribbean island of Dominica. The UK of his childhood, he writes, was a country “in which anti-immigration and racist sentiment went unchecked”. Raised in South London, he and his friends hung out on housing estates at once familiar and “terrifying”.
He experienced his first violent racist attack while walking home from school with his younger brother. It was an episode that changed him, he says, and, long before he had the legal jargon, led him to reflect on the “liberty” someone possesses to physically attack someone else “and not suffer any consequences”.
Black Londoners, meanwhile, had the so-called sus laws applied to them indiscriminately. When they weren’t being taunted or assaulted by National Front members or skinheads, they would be stopped, searched and interrogated by police in the street, often in broad daylight.
Against many odds and while holding down part-time jobs, Thomas got his A levels and went to university.
“There was nothing I wanted to do but law,” he writes. “I didn’t have any other plan.” He landed a pupillage at London’s Inner Temple, and became a barrister.
He went on to play a part in some of the most controversial and complex cases of recent times, including the New Cross fire, Mark Duggan shooting, Thomas Cook gas deaths, Birmingham pub bombings, Grenfell Tower fire and the suicide of Carl Sergeant.
Of the Grenfell inquiry, in which he was instructed to represent 23 clients, including survivors, Thomas writes: “The tragedy resonated with me on a very personal level and I feel a strong connection with my clients on this case. The lack of safe, decent and secure social housing and the plight of poor, working-class, and often immigrant families who through no fault of their own find themselves at the bottom of the property ladder is an issue that has always been close to my heart. Then, there is the all-important question of the great, glaring elephant in the room throughout this inquiry: the role of institutional racism at the heart of this disaster.”
His career reads like a history of modern Britain, albeit the sadder and darker side. He has shone a light on deaths that occurred in police custody – all painstaking and complex work that has taken its toll on his emotional and physical health.
In 2014, Thomas became a QC. In 2020 he became the first Black Gresham Professor of Law. It’s a noble and venerable title but also, importantly, one that involves delivering free educational lectures to the general public. His latest lecture is on race, colonialism and power in the legal system.
When you were growing up, what were your first inklings of social, economic and racial injustice? I grew up in poverty and surrounded by poverty. My parents lived in private rented slum accommodation for the first few years of my life. The property we were renting was damp, mould infested and a fire hazard. My parents worked every hour they could to do the best for their family. Did I realise this at the time? No, it was life and how we lived. I had no comparators to judge things by. By the time I started school, I realised there were those who had and those who did not, and for most of the time we were the ones who did not have. But the realisation of this was not through envious eyes, but just ones which could observe the reality of the situation. My first inkling of racial injustice was the incident I talk about in the book where I went to summer camp with the Cub Scouts and was treated appallingly by the other boys with whom I shared a tent because I was Black and the terrible way that this was handled by the scout leader. He was not fit to look after young vulnerable boys, looking back on it.
When was the moment – or starting point, if it was more a process – that you realised the law would be the ideal career for you?
When I realised that shouting about things from the outside wasn’t as effective as being a lawyer who could bring about real change. I learned this when I was stopped and searched by the police at the age of 14, and thought to myself that one day the police would have to respect who I was. One way of achieving that is if I had them being the ones who had to answer questions as opposed to me being a vulnerable young Black child on the streets of London at their mercy and having to answer their questions.
The police have played a central role in your career. Isn’t it simply true that the police profession attracts more bad eggs than other sectors, so in that sense people like yourself – who take them on – will always be fighting a losing battle?
I don’t know if I agree with the premise of your question that the police necessarily attracts more bad eggs than other sectors. You could say the same about corrupt politicians, greedy bankers and fat cat lawyers. I think life is much more nuanced than this and although it might seem trite, there are good and bad police, maybe not in equal measure but I am certainly not saying that there are more corrupt and bad officers than good. I just don’t know. What I do know is that the nature of my job means that am going to be dealing with the bad ones precisely because of the nature of the work I do. But it would be wrong to say because this is my experience all police officers or the majority of police officers must be like this. If I am being honest I just don’t know.
What underlies the “militarisation” of the police, to which you refer in relation to the various police shooting cases you were involved in?
Fear, lack of understanding in communities and a sense by those in charge of police officers, often led by populist politicians, that people need to be controlled. An injection of fear into the masses of people who do not look like you, speak like you, eat like you or pray like you. This fear is fed by certain sections of the media, and the justification for ever increasing arming of the police then takes on a horrible and depressing cycle, to protect us. The question is from what? Often when we analyse what we are being protected from it is people just like us but we don’t realise it.
The European courts come up time and again. Was Brexit a major, even tragic, loss for lawyers fighting inhuman rights cases?
Brexit was utter madness but I don’t think it can be conflated with the attack on human rights cases, although many right wing politicians attempted to make this connection. The biggest attack on human rights is the government’s current attack on repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and seeking to replace it with a watered down UK Bill of Rights. This, although often trumpeted by the same Brexit loving politicians, is nevertheless an entirely separate attack on our rights. And yes, if the government is successful it will be a tragic loss.
Deaths in custody have become one of your specialisms. What is the legal and moral importance of this particular category of crime?
It is work that has to be done. When the state takes the life of one of its own, you don’t have a more important argument for accountability. If we don’t properly hold the state to account for such deaths, then we may as well be living in some totalitarian regime. Why did it fire me up? Exactly because of the unfairness of the system. You are in a real David v Goliath situation where often the state has access to all the resources, expensive lawyers, documents and witnesses who know what exactly happened and the family of the deceased does not. They are left waiting and wanting answers. Helping them get those answers is very satisfying.
You write that you won’t take on any more of these cases. Why?
Because I have done these cases for three decades. It sucks you dry. You see time and time again the state not learning lessons. The same types of preventable deaths happening again and again, and it is tiring and soul destroying. I’ve simply had enough. There are other challenges in life. I like teaching what I have learned and passing it on to the next generation. This is why I enjoy being a professor of law at Gresham College.
You chose to join a profession that is notoriously classist, racist and old-fashioned. One of your chapter titles is The London Legal Elite v Me. Do you thrive on challenges? Not really. In fact it is extremely difficult and soul-destroying work, and I am not a masochist. The fact is it is work that needs to be done, and well. When I was coming through the law I would often see this work being done and being done badly. There comes a point where you just have to step up and help, and if you can do a better job than others do it.
Is there, though, a professional buzz in working on high-profile cases, and being part of the sweep of history? It’s only when I look back on my career I can now see some of the achievements and progress made. But at the time of those cases, I was living in the moment and certainly not thinking about making history or having a sense of this is where the action is. The truth is you don’t have time to do this. A lot of the time, as I have said, you are dealing with pain and grief of the families and doing the best you can for them.
Looking back today, what was the high point of your career so far? And the low? I think achieving the result for the family of Christi and Bobbi Shepherd in the Thomas Cook carbon monoxide inquest case. The low point was learning that I had been a victim of spy cops and had been spied upon for doing my job as a barrister by the police.
Your career has been impressive, quite extraordinary. But you write candidly about relationships and breakdowns between the cases. Has the work involved too great a sacrifice of time and of your personal and private life?
Yes, at times it has taken an enormous toll on my mental health. I deal daily with death and people who have died the most horrible deaths. Then on top of that many of my clients are in grief. Death can bring out the worse or the best in people. You have to become a counsellor in addition to being a lawyer and this is something that they do not teach you in law school. On top of all of this the job is difficult at the best of times. The work I do involves a lot of conflict. At times you have to challenge people and confront them with what you believe is the truth. It can become rather unpleasant. People do not take well to having their integrity impugned, and added to all of that is the long and unfriendly hours and extensive travelling up and down the country.
I think it is because I am probably a deeply flawed character and that, combined with the pressures of such a job, is a recipe for disaster when it comes to relationships.
Any regrets? I don’t regret the job, or the hard work. That’s me. But I do regret the impact and the effect it has had on my personal relationships and family life. I would have spent more time watching my first two children grown up if I had my chance with them again. I am fortunate in that I have a two year old and I am trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
You write, at the end, that you have swapped “imposter syndrome” for “trespasser syndrome” – that the fault lies with those who wrongly judge Black men and women in the legal profession. But is the system changing? It is changing, albeit slowly, but the needle is definitely moving in the right direction.
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