The Big Interview: Dame Linda Dobbs


Dame Linda Dobbs, the first black High Court judge, discusses a remarkable career of high profile cases.

The Tippex Factor

“You have to be gifted plus.” Dame Linda Dobbs could be describing what it takes to become a High Court judge, but she’s actually explaining why she chose not to pursue a career in music, one of her biggest passions. “I was an only child, so I had to entertain myself. I used to play all my parents’ music – my father was classical and jazz whereas my mother was pop, soul, all sorts of different music, and she was a very good singer. I just grew up playing music all the time.”

That’s how Dobbs ended up studying music at Edinburgh University, against the wishes of her parents – and her sceptical music teacher. She soon realised she wasn’t going to make it as a serious musician. “I looked at my peers, most of whom were spending every day practising down in the studios,” she explains. “I was playing sports, I was a member of the drama society, and I was in the pub. I was having a good time.”

With music, Dobbs knew her limitations something she says ambitious students eager for a career in law should think about too: “I always say know yourself: your strengths and weaknesses.” In her case, she felt, “it’s lovely to play in an orchestra, but it’s a tough, tough life. Travelling all over the place, working during the day and late into the night... Mind you, that sounds like being a lawyer!”

In fact, when it came to law, Dobbs was determined “that I wasn’t going to be pressured into it. Just because my dad was a lawyer, why should I be?” Dobbs’ father was a High Court judge in Sierra Leone, but she says her path didn’t come about from following in his footsteps. It wasn’t until she was at the Bar, “and particularly when I went on to the Bench that I thought to myself – he’d be quite tickled by this.”

Ultimately, Dobbs was tempted by a course at Surrey University, combining law with Russian, a language she loved. It was a mentor who suggested it: “She thought very cleverly, ‘Well, this will hook her in.’” And it did – eventually. First, Dobbs went on to do a Master's and then a PhD, both at the London School of Economics. She was called to the Bar in 1981 and began practicing from 5 King’s Bench Walk, the forerunner of Red Lion Chambers which she’s still affiliated to today.

“I found out that my clerk would sometimes tippex my name out and give the brief to one of the male pupils.”

Being a pupil is tough enough. Being a black woman in chambers in the early 1980s brought other challenges. Namely, the clerks: “Their default position was that the men were better than the women. They’d allocate work to the male pupils and then the female pupils, if we were lucky. But if solicitors liked you they would put your name on the brief.” Dobbs suspected something was amiss when she was approached by a solicitor: “She said: ‘I’m always asking for you and they’re saying you’re busy!’ We did an exercise going through the diary, and I wasn’t busy. I found out that my clerk would sometimes tippex my name out and give the brief to one of the male pupils.”

There weren’t only the clerks to contend with: “I’d turn up for a case only for the client to say: ‘I said I didn’t want a woman.’ It may also have been that I was a person of colour, but they were too embarrassed to say that.’” Dobbs recalls that “it was never very good for my self-esteem,” but she learned not to take offence: “I could stamp my feet and make a fuss, or put my head down, work hard, and prove my worth. I decided to do the latter.”

She did her fair share of sexual assault and murder cases (“they always gave the sex cases to the women”) before specialising: “My interest was fraud and regulatory work.” This was exactly what she pursued before she eventually took silk in 1998. And not once did she consider leaving the profession. “I loved being an advocate and being on my feet.”

And then she got a tap on the shoulder.

Auld boy network

Dobbs didn’t sit as a recorder before she was appointed to the judiciary, though many had floated the idea to her: Lord Justice Judge, the then Senior Presiding Judge, rang up my chambers and invited me to tea. ‘Everybody talks about you,’ he said, ‘and I see you don’t sit as a recorder. Why not?’ The short answer was that “I never thought I’d have a prayer if I applied for the High Court Bench.” Why? In the senior judiciary “there were very few criminal practitioners at the time. It was mainly big commercial and Chancery chaps – and I say chaps advisedly.”

Here's what she did: “I said, ‘I’d be a hopeless judge! I’m so impatient, I’ve got a short attention span and I get bored very, very easily.’ And he said, ‘You’d be a wonderful post-Auld judge.'” Judge was referring to the Auld Report, which had been written in 2001, three years prior to Dobbs’ appointment, calling for more efficiency in the criminal justice system. “So that little excuse didn’t work!” says Dobbs.

In 2004, “I was tapped on the shoulder by the Lord Chancellor [then Charlie Falconer] who had me into the House of Lords and said: ‘I want you to be one of Her Majesty’s judges.’” And while many could only dream of such a summons, it wasn’t straightforward for Dobbs. “It was a difficult decision for me,” she explains.I was a silk doing well. Going into this organisation, the judiciary, I’d be at the bottom of the pile, the baby, and treated as such.” She continues: “I looked at the Bench and I thought 'I don’t really know anybody there, therefore it's not an environment that will embrace me.'”

“I said, ‘I’d be hopeless. I’m so impatient, I’ve got a short attention span and I get bored very, very easily.’”

Ultimately though, she had other reasons for accepting the position. She was chair of the Criminal Bar Association where she set up a diversity sub-committee, having previously been chair of the Bar’s Race Relations and Professional Standards Committees. “I felt – and I hope it doesn’t sound pompous – I felt a sense of duty to take on the job,” she says. “And knowing that I would be the first black High Court judge, I thought that would open up the floodgates.” She adds, not without a chuckle: “It took seven years for the next BAME appointment, so it was hardly floodgates.”

At the time, when Dobbs was appointed, she said: “While this appointment might be seen as casting me into the role of standard bearer, I am simply a practitioner following a career path. I am confident, nevertheless, that I am the first of many to come.” Since her appointment in 2004, just two BAME people have joined the senior judiciary: Sir Rabinder Singh in 2011 and Dame Bobbie Cheema-Grubb in 2015. “Women have fared better, and lower down things are better too,” Dobbs points out, “but there’s a long way to go, especially with senior BAME judges.” Dissecting the stats, Dobbs observes: “If you lump the whole of the judiciary together, the figures don’t look so bad because the tribunals’ judiciary is far more diverse than the courts’. It’s not as if there aren’t senior BAME lawyers out there to form a pool for the senior judiciary – there are. But not a lot of them are attracted to the idea of the senior Bench, and there are lots of varying and complicated reasons for that.”

“There was real resistance to it, and I don’t really understand why.”

Dobbs isn’t an advocate of diversity quotas but thinks that targets may be the way to go – this was her position as part of the advisory committee for the Lammy Review, led by Labour MP David Lammy into the treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system. “People say they’d hate to be chosen because they’re a woman, and with quotas yes, you are chosen because you’re a woman,” she says. “Targets have a different feel. It would concentrate minds. Knowing you have a target to achieve, you start thinking about what you need to be doing if you want to effect the change.” Setting targets was one of 35 recommendations made in the Lammy Review, but it wasn’t accepted. “There was real resistance to it,” says Dobbs, “and I don’t really understand why. Until that changes, I think progress is going to be slow.”

Under the spotlight

Dobbs was once misquoted on quotas after giving a lecture at UCL by a major broadsheet newspaper – the headline claimed she was calling for quotas. “The word ‘quotas’ never passed my lips, so I was extremely annoyed,” says Dobbs. “I was getting emails from fellow judges – they were furious. I had to send a general email out to the network saying, ‘As usual, the press have got it wrong.’” By her own admission, her relationship with the press hadn’t been great: “I consistently avoided engaging with the media when I was at the Bar; it just wasn’t my style.”

“It made me realise I am a role model, reluctant though I was to accept it.”

Once on the Bench, “one publication criticised me for not giving interviews, saying, ‘What sort of role model is she? She ought to be out there being more accessible.’ When I read that, it made me realise I am a role model, reluctant though I was to accept it.” She knew she had to soften her stance towards media interest – “though I still try to get out of the limelight if I can.”

It’s hardly easy to keep in the wings when your job is often inextricably linked with enormous media interest, such as what happened during the inquest into the murder of six-year-old Ellie Butler by her father in 2013. “One afternoon I told the father to shut up and there were the papers: 'Strong Coroner Tells Monster to Shut Up' – I think they called him 'monster'… anyway, it made a good headline.”

As a “real multitasker and somebody who loves new things,” Dobbs loved the work she first encountered on the Bench – “it was all new and it was a challenge.” She spent her first three weeks as a High Court judge in the civil courts, which she’d never worked in before. “It was terrifying, and I had to develop ways of managing it,” she recalls. “So when counsel would say, ‘Your ladyship will be familiar with such and such a case’ – of course I wasn’t, and they probably knew it – I would say, ‘Why don’t you remind me, Mr So-and-So, of the essence of it?’ to actually find out what the case was about.”

And her concerns about not knowing anyone on the Bench? While other Divisions such as Chancery and Family have fewer judges, their own building, the 60-odd High Court judges of the Queen’s Bench Division are spreadall over the Royal Courts of Justice, “so there wasn’t that common space where you could sit and have a chat and get to know your colleagues.” She remembers: “I had to pluck up the courage to go into a busy judge’s room on my corridor to say, ‘Can I run this past you?’ Every time I did they were always terribly nice and helpful, but it’s not the same as chewing over some legal issue with your mates in chambers.”

Aspire state of mind

Some cases brought another layer of pressure. Dobbs recalls “the hardest case I ever had,” concerning a black Briton. “He’d been living and working in this country for years,” Dobbs explains. “He’d gone away for a long weekend to a European country, and when he came to leave the authorities detained him and took his passport.” They believed he was an imposter because he had put on weight since taking his passport picture. The man went to court and was released – without his passport. Unable to return to the UK, he lost his job with the Met Police. When the British High Commission in Ghana decided not to grant him a new passport, he took legal action. Permission for a judicial review of the decision was granted, and he was ordered back to the UK.

When the case came to Dobbs, there was a lot more material to prove his identity than there had been at time of his passport application. “I had enormous sympathy for him,” she says, “but I had to use the judicial review test – was the decision at the time one that no reasonable decision maker could make?” She couldn’t find that it was. “What made it worse was that I could tell that when he saw me he thought he’d win because of the colour of my skin, so when he lost you could tell he was shocked, and probably angry with me.” The man did not pursue an appeal, but nevertheless Dobbs reflects: “I sometimes wonder whether he still thinks I’m a wicked witch, and if his trust in judges has gone down.”

“You can see the look of expectation – they’re surprised to see a black judge.”

Dobbs is reminded of another incident when she was handling an urgent case and had to turn down a black woman’s application. “She walked to the exit, turned around and looked at me long and hard. And she said: ‘I see the colour of your skin, but you’re not black enough for me.’ Then she stormed out of court.” Dobbs is able to laugh as she tells this story, but she recognises the similarity in both events: “You can see the look of expectation – they’re surprised to see a black judge. There’s the assumption that this is a brother, a sister, and they’ll understand, and – in their eyes – do the right thing. They have great expectations of me, and then automatically think I'm part of the establishment because I didn’t make the decision in their favour.”

Dobbs stepped down in 2013, and besides her various professional appointments (such as working on the Lloyds investigation into the bank's handling of reported fraud at HBOS), these days spends much of her time concentrating on the various charities she’s involved in – “too many to count!” What else would you expect from a  multitasker? She’s involved with several charities and projects in South Africa, where she has a home. Outside of Cape Town, there’s a school for boys who’ve been excluded – Dobbs supports a third of them financially. It’s fantastic watching them,” she says. “When they first come to the school, most of them are on drugs and almost addicted, with terrible backgrounds. In nine months or so, they’ve just transformed. It gives them a certain sense of self-worth. They’re all learning practical and social skills, and are able to go do something when they turn 18.”

The parallels with young people in London are clear: “It made me think of the problems with knife crime here. The kids are excluded, they’ve got nothing to do, and they need a sense of identity and value. Being in a gang provides a sense of value. Killing somebody gives them another little star on their lapel.” Not one to sit back idly, Dobbs has begun work on “a little pet project.” She’s returning to her musical roots to produce a rap video that will feature successful black people, including figures listed in the Power List 100 (an annual publication of the 100 most powerful black people in Britain – Dobbs chairs the selection panel). “When you think of successful black people, you tend to think of sports people and musicians,” says Dobbs, “whereas we’ve got successful black people across the whole country in a range of disciplines. There will be images of us in our professional lives so kids can see they’re just like us.” The project is still in the works, but Dobbs is clear: “It will happen – I’m determined.” Stay tuned, we say.

This feature was first published in May 2019.

It was written and researched by Chambers' Leah Henderson.