On the 23rd of September a 25-year-old black barrister from Essex named Alexandra Wilson was mistaken for a defendant three times in one day at court. This has prompted the launch of an urgent investigation by the chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service.
Wilson took to Twitter to detail her experience in a series of tweets that quickly went viral. She tweeted: ‘Today I was assumed to be a defendant 3 times and a journalist once (lol). There MUST be something about my face that says “not a barrister” because I am literally wearing a black suit like everyone else. I don’t get it. Today it actually upset me a bit but… we move x’.
Wilson began her Twitter thread by explaining that when she first arrived at court, the security officer in place said he could not find her name on the list of defendants. She corrected him and explained she was a barrister; he apologised and guided her through security. Wilson said she tried to “shrug it off as an innocent mistake”.
The second instance occurred after Wilson spoke with her client and opened the door to the courtroom to discuss her case with the prosecutor. After being told by a member of the public she wasn’t permitted to enter because she was “a journalist”, Wilson was then told by a solicitor that she must wait outside the court and that an usher would come outside, sign her in and the court would call for her for her case. Again, Wilson explained she was a barrister and later tweeted that the solicitor in question “Looked embarrassed and said “oh. I see”.”
Thirdly, when Wilson approached the prosecutor ready to discuss the case a clerk told her “VERY loudly” to leave the courtroom and that the usher would be out shortly. Wilson tweeted: ‘Before I could respond she then asked if I was represented… I, AGAIN, explained that I am a defence barrister trying to speak to the prosecutor. She looked at me, said “oh right, ok” and continued with what she was doing.’
Wilson ended her comments with: ‘Thankfully, the prosecutor and I were eventually able to have our conversation and the case proceeded smoothly. This really isn’t ok though. I don’t expect to have to constantly justify my existence at work’.
Wilson’s thread of tweets garnered substantial attention and were consequently covered by various media outlets. In response to the widespread and justified outrage at Wilson’s experience, MHCTS chief executive Kevin Sadler apologised via Twitter. He said: ‘I’m very sorry about your experience at court yesterday – it is totally unacceptable behaviour and I’m investigating the role of my staff and contractors as a matter of urgency. This is not behaviour anyone should expect and certainly does not reflect our values.’
Various members of the legal community have reached out to comment on Wilson’s experience, including Amanda Pinto QC who is head of the Bar Council. An article featured on the Law Gazette website said that Pinto was speaking directly with HMCTS, the senior judiciary and the CPS immediately, “urging more to be done to stamp out this behaviour”. She went on to say: ‘There is more to do to change the perception of the bar, but that is no excuse for the kind of attitudes and remarks described. We are not all white, middle class men.’
In addition, the Law Society president Simon Davis stated: ‘This type of prejudice highlights the need for us all to reflect on the actions we can take to tackle discrimination. The Law Society is in the process of conducting research into the experiences of our black, Asian and minority ethnic members, including the impact prejudice can have on their confidence, career satisfaction and progression, and how we can drive change.’ Read more about Wilson’s experience here or follow her on Twitter @EssexBarrister.