Philippe Sands, a leading human rights lawyer and one of the UK’s top QCs, calls on British law universities to address ethnic minority under-representation among academic teaching staff.
The founding member of Matrix Chambers, a set of barristers' chambers in London and Switzerland founded in 2000 by 22 barristers from 7 different chambers, denounced that under-representation of black and minority ethnic (BAME) legal scholars should be a “matter of real concern” for UK universities.
He added: “The gender balance of those teaching laws has largely been sorted, but the issue of BAME academics in law is still a major issue.
“I’m not sure I’ve done enough on this issue myself, but I will be doing so in future,” said Professor Sands, who has also authored several bestselling books on international law, Nazi war criminals and his own family’s history in Nazi-occupied Europe.
“At my practice, I will not participate in cases in courts or tribunals where the legal team is all male and I plan to extend this rule to ensure minority lawyers are also involved,” he said.
Sands, who has held academic roles at Harvard, New York, Cambridge and Melbourne, and will take up a new role at UCL next month as a professor for the public understanding of the law, as he has appeared in more than two dozen cases in the International Courts of Justice, believes to be an exception for a UK university whose title reflects the more public-facing nature of his work in recent years, which has seen his writings adapted into a BBC podcast, documentary films and theatrical performances.
Even though research published by the Bar Standards Board in 2018 found that black law graduates with an upper-second degree were half as likely to be offered a pupillage (even if the disparity was less when those with a first were compared to the 60% of white graduates who received a pupillage against the 42% of black graduates), currently, there is no official data on the number of BAME law academics in the UK. Yet, about one-third, comparable to the 35% of the 71,685 students studying law in 2018-19, were non-white, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
“If the situation is to improve, it will also mean people like me turning down opportunities,” declared Professor Sands. “If I am asked to chair a working group, even though my ego would love it, I might have to say that someone else I know, perhaps someone who is Asian or black, might be the right person,” he added.
“I approached my dean at UCL and said: ‘I don’t stand up and give lectures about arcane points of international law, so why don’t we calibrate my role to recognise this?’” explained Professor Sands, who added that his department had been “1,000 per cent supportive of his non-traditional academic activity”.
His work to “bring international law into the mainstream” was inspired to a large part by the mass demonstrations in March 2003 against the British invasion of Iraq.
“I got very involved in the legal issues of the Iraq war and was struck by how, on that famous march in March 2003, people were walking through the centre of London in their hundreds of thousands, with some holding placards about article 2.4 of international law,” he recalled.
“I thought that was interesting, and I had a sense that we, in the community of international lawyers, were spending too much time talking to each other and too little time connecting to other communities”.
The idea of the new professorship arose after a fruitful conversation with Marcus du Sautoy, Simonyi Professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford. “He suggested I do the same thing with law, so it’s a complete act of plagiarism, in the very best of ways,” Professor Sands concluded smiling.