Black Firsts in British Criminal Justice

Professor Paul Knepper  from the School of Law updates us on the progress of his project which is supported by the Engaged Curriculum Funding Stream.

During the past decade or so, Black Britons have achieved a number of ‘firsts’ in legal professions. In 1999, Patricia Dangor became Britain’s circuit judge of Caribbean background. Linda Dobbs became the first Black High Court judge and Michael Fuller the first Black Chief Constable in 2004. Barbara Mensah became the first Crown Court judge of African ancestry, and Grace Ononiwu, Britain’s first Black Chief Crown Prosecutor, in 2005. Patricia Scotland, the first Black woman appointed QC, became in 2007, Britain’s first Black Attorney General.

Through the Black Firsts in British Criminal Justice project, a number of students have had the opportunity to meet these remarkable individuals and document their experiences. We arrange for interviews, ask a series of open-ended questions, and produce transcripts of the responses. After the interviews are completed, the transcripts will become part of an on-going seminar within the law and criminology curriculum. Interviews with firsts represent an important means of understanding the operation of law in a diverse society and of learning about a significant aspect of Britain’s legal history. The project has received additional support from the SURE scheme, Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience, and a small grant from LERN, the Legal Education Research Network.

The student team consists of Amy Richards, Doug Scott, Sanna Aslam and Ellen Bower, who did a number of interviews through the SURE scheme. So far, we have completed 12 interviews. Many have taken place in London, including the House of Lords and Lincoln’s Inn, but we have also travelled to Luton Crown Court and the Crown Prosecution Service in Birmingham. One of the most intriguing findings so far is the portion of firsts achieved by women: many Black firsts were achieved by women. Unravelling the combination of gender and ethnicity will be important for understanding the barriers to career progression and the strategies for overcoming them.

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