Usha Sood, Immigration and Family law Barrister at Trent Chambers, Nottingham
LLB (Hons) M.Phil
Head of Chambers
During the summer of Year 12, I was fortunate enough to gain a mini pupillage at Trent Chambers in Nottingham shadowing Mrs Sood (Head of Chambers). The week consisted of conducting research for different cases, attending client meetings and going to court; it was an incredible insight into the other areas of non-commercial law.
Born in Malaysia, Mrs Sood moved to England with her family when she was 18 after receiving an offer to study English at the University of Cambridge. Nevertheless, she opted to study law at the University of Nottingham to be closer to her family, despite her knowledge of the realities of legal practice being limited. Following on from her degree, she was called to the bar in 1974 and lectured at Nottingham Trent University full time as the only person of colour in the law department, before starting to practice in 1991 and setting up her chambers in 1992. She was also one of the first female barristers in Nottingham.
Not only has Mrs Sood served the members of her community, she has also fought for the rights of women through her position as a specialist advisor to the Joint Committee of House of Lords and Commons on the new domestic violence bill, shaping the legislation to include definitions of cohesive and financial control. A champion for racial injustice, she was also part of the Macpherson Committee who released a report on the Steven Lawrence Inquiry, subsequently making approximately 80 recommendations centring around the improvement of racial awareness in police institutions. These included suggesting that police services should facilitate the development of initiatives to increase the number of qualified minority ethnic recruits and that all possible steps should be taken by police services at local level in consultation with local Government to encourage the reporting of racist incidents and crimes.
I asked Mrs Sood a range of questions about her experiences in the legal sector as a woman of colour.
Why did you choose a career in law and which areas do you now practice in?
When my dad first suggested a law degree, I had very limited knowledge of what it would be like to actually practice as a lawyer in the real world and any knowledge I did have came from watching films. Reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ inspired me further to actually pursue a career in this field as I knew that I wanted to use the tools I had learned to make a difference; that naturally led me to Human Rights Law. I had no mentors and connections in the field but this was not going to stop me and indeed it didn’t. My dad was my biggest supporter through this process.
I currently practice in family, public and a little bit of civil law however my favourite is public law, especially immigration. I also have some experience in property and land law as I was a judge in their respective tribunals for 5/6 years however, I didn’t enjoy it that much.
What type of cases have you worked on?
I have worked on a range of cases, from fighting for the rights of two elderly people to be together to the reservation of a village green. I have also worked on cases where victims of domestic violence were going to be deported back to their home countries where their abusers were, cases on the Calais children, trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and child abduction. Public law is about fighting for the disadvantaged and vulnerable on the causes that matter to them. It doesn’t matter to me how high profile the case is or whether it is successful or not, I value the impact that I am able to make on an individual’s life.
What are some of the challenges you faced as a woman of colour in the legal world?
Firstly, when I first qualified, the times were very different and gender discrimination was a lot more rampant. Nevertheless, it is important to see how far we have come and how far we have yet to go, hence my realistic account of my own personal experience.
I was a bit of an optimist in regard to how the legal sphere operated, but my biggest illusion was not recognising just how high bound the legal world is by traditional groupings of a closed nature. It existed as a ‘white man’s club’ and this was further re-enforced when I attended court and all the changing rooms were for men. I would have to come dressed for proceedings when the men didn’t. None of the conversations were ever inclusive, they centred around the sports they played together and crude humour which I didn’t understand, partly because of the fact that I didn’t grow up here. It was because of this that I went into academia shortly after passing the bar in 1974, working full time for 17 years and part time for 20 years.
What made you come back to legal practice?
In 1992, I was approached to do some work, despite my reluctance to re-enter the world I had turned away from, on a high-profile immigration and family law case that involved 7 refugee children. A local councillor knocked on my door with a child she’d found sheltering in a house with his mother and siblings. The father was being deported in a few days and she didn’t know what could be done. I taught public law, so I knew about deportation, but also about family law.
During the initial meetings, one of the children said to me ‘’They’re going to send us to this place called India. Will they have neighbours there?’’ I said: ‘’Of course, every country has neighbours.’’ Then I realised he meant the television programme. It was very moving and all I though was that day was that they’d be lucky to have a roof over their head, let alone a television set. With resilience we did it and were able to protect the children from deportation until they were adults. The same couldn’t be said for their parents as a year after, the Home Office deported their mother. Barry Brazier, a local race equality campaigner, helped the children and his last words to the children before he passed away were that I (Mrs Sood) would make sure that their parents came home. I’d been given a mission, and I succeeded in getting the children’s parents back after 22 years. It’s the longest case I’ve ever done and was one of the underlying cases that in 2009 lead to the government passing legislation that made children’s welfare important in immigration.
This was one of my proudest cases, I wasn’t paid and there was no extra legal aid but it was a landmark case for me getting back into practice, along with the increasing numbers of women and lawyers of an ethnic minority in the legal field.
What improvements have you seen since you started practicing as a barrister and what would you like to see?
There are a lot more women in practice, and in some areas, they outnumber men. Nevertheless, there are not enough women in higher positions, and I want to see them break through the glass ceilings that are clearly evident in the judicial courts. As may be obvious, courts provide facilities for women now and many law firms have schemes in place designed to increase racial and gender diversity. Moreover, in the last part of my teaching (Mrs Sood retired from academia in 2008) there were equal proportions of men and women in my classes and a lot more women of colour.
I would like the training that lawyers get, whether that be through the LPC, BPTC, training contracts etc, to include more racial awareness and there should be an insistence on ethical codes of conduct as a lawyer.
What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers, especially women of colour?
So generally, I would advise everyone to get as much experience as possible in various practice areas of the law. Not only does this increase your depth of knowledge but you also have the ability to truly find out what you enjoy and what you do not. NGO’s are such a valuable source of experience and is often under looked. Often, you can intern with them for longer than a 2-week vacation scheme and constantly work on skills that will be essential in the future. I would advise doing this after you graduate, take some time off to grow before heading straight into practice.
As women of colour, we do not have the same volume of representatives and role models to look up to and aspire to be like. When you seek these different experiences, look amongst chambers, NGO’s and firms that are diverse and build connections through this. When, as I am sure many of you reading this will, you get to those high positions in the future, aim to be visible in your profession to inspire the next generation of lawyers; show them that it is possible to be a successful woman of colour in this profession.
Interview by Aba Amponsa – BAME Officer, CUSWL