‘I’m A Barrister – But People Often Assume I’m The Defendant’

Alexandra Wilson tells Anna Silverman how she’s fighting to change the criminal justice system from within.

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by Anna Silverman |
Updated on

Alexandra Wilson was studying for her A-levels when her close family friend Ayo was stabbed more than 14 times and killed by two boys who mistook him for a rival gang member. Ayo, 17, was not in a gang. He was a Black teenage boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For years, grief and anger consumed Alexandra. As the murder trial played out, she questioned whether Ayo would have been mistaken for a gang member and killed if he had been white. She grew more aware of the way the police and criminal justice system seemed biased against Black people.

‘My cousins and some of their friends, all young Black boys, would constantly be harassed by the police when they were driving,’saysAlexandra,now25.‘Istarted to realise that this wasn’t happening to some of my white male friends. In addition to Ayo’s murder, that really made me think, wait, this isn’t fair. Why is the system affecting some people more than others?’

The problem is they’re seeing the same group of people coming into the court all day, every day. And so people start to have unconscious biases.

The tragedy compelled her to enter the legal profession in search of answers.‘I wanted to be part of a system and be able to change a system to make it more preventative and sort out so many of these issues we can see with bias,’ she says.

Now, nearly two years in, she has written a book about it. In Black And White details her experience as a mixed-race barrister working in a justice system still divided by race and class. Before being called to the bar in 2018, she studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford (becoming the first in her family to go to university at 18). Then, she received a scholarship to complete her Bar Professional Training Course – which would normally cost £19,000. After that, she began a highly sought-after pupillage, to finish her training as a barrister. Now, she lives in Essex with her parents, sister and cousin, and has been defending clients from her bedroom during lockdown, issuing strict warnings to her family not to barge in mid-trial.

Being a mixed-race woman from a working-class background, in a profession where people wear wigs and gowns, and where diverse representation is sorely lacking, makes the book particularly significant. Alexandra talks of the unfairness of a system that disproportionately charges and convicts people from BAME backgrounds. On numerous occasions, the court ushers have assumed she is the defendant or the defendant’s mum, and her clients are often shocked when they see her.

‘I don’t necessarily think anyone’s doing it to be malicious. The problem is they’re seeing the same group of people coming into the court all day, every day. And so people start to have unconscious biases. I’m not saying that’s not a problem – and there needs to be better training to acknowledge that – but I can see the root of it.’

At first, these undertones undermined her confidence. ‘I thought, is it me? Am I doing something wrong? Am I not dressed correctly? Am I not presenting confidently enough? You start to have those doubts. It’s only now, as I’m gaining more understanding and I’ve seen more patterns I guess, that you start to think, actually, there’s a bigger issue at play here.’

She has also had to tolerate inappropriate and upsetting comments from men, such as the time an older male barrister told her he wasn’t circumcised. ‘I was mortified and I remember thinking, “Do I say anything? Everyone else is a man. Do I go to them?”’ she says. ‘As a young woman, you don’t want to be that person to rock the boat.’

The lack of diversity, she explains in a chapter called Where are the women?, is twofold, as at entry level there are quite a few women. It’s as they get older they begin to drop away, leaving few female role models to turn to higher up. ‘Part of it might be because barristers are self-employed, so we don’t have things like maternity pay,’ she says. But she thinks it’s lazy to assume that is the only reason: the hours are irregular; women are often primary carers at home, and you are expected to work antisocial hours. ‘If wellbeing was taken a bit more seriously and we weren’t expected to work through our evenings, that would have a positive impact on retention of women.’

So why did she write the book? If it’s to inspire others to join the profession, she’s painted a rather bleak picture so far. But at the same time, if she doesn’t sound the alarm about the need to diversify, then who will? ‘I hope I can encourage more diversity in my profession,’ she says. ‘I hope younger people can read it and think, “Oh she did it, I can too.”’ Alexandra also hopes it will encourage other young women from BAME backgrounds, including those in other professions where there are issues of diversity, to reflect and feel confident about changing things.

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Has she found any of the answers she began looking for after Ayo’s murder? ‘I’ve come to realise I may never get the answers. At first, I wanted to understand why anyone would randomly kill. Now I’ve got a more nuanced understanding of what goes on. These things aren’t completely random.

I think we’ve got a broken system; it has institutional problems. Black people are falling at the bottom of that system.’

Alexandra’s end goal is to help change a structure that for too long has stopped and searched Black people nearly 10 times more than white people, over-represents ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, and sentences Black people to longer prison terms; a system that leaves some groups so distrustful of the police that they will go out and avenge a killing – as Ayo’s murderers did – rather than calling the emergency services. ‘For me, being inside the system is the best way to push for that change.’

‘In Black And White’ will be published on 17 September (£16.99, Endeavour)

READ MORE: Yes, The UK Does Have A Race Problem. And It's Just As Troubling As America's

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