Philippe Sands: lack of UK BAME law academics a ‘major problem’

Leading human rights barrister calls on UK law schools to address ethnic minority under-representation among academic teaching staff

September 22, 2020
Source: Credit: Antonio Olmos

One of the UK’s top QCs has called on UK universities to increase the number of black and ethnic minority law academics.

Philippe Sands, a founding member of Matrix Chambers who has appeared in more than two dozen cases in the International Courts of Justice, told Times Higher Education that the under-representation of black and minority ethnic (BAME) legal scholars should be a “matter of real concern” for UK universities.

“The gender balance of those teaching law has largely been sorted, but the issue of BAME academics in law is still a major issue,” said Professor Sands, who has held academic posts at institutions such as Harvard, New York, Cambridge and Melbourne, and will take up a new role at UCL next month as professor for the public understanding of law.

“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.

There is no official data on the number of BAME law academics in the UK, but about one-third (35 per cent) of the 71,685 students studying law in 2018-19 were non-white, according to the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

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, although the disparity was less when those with a first were compared (60 per cent of white graduates received a pupillage compared with 42 per cent of black graduates).

“If the situation is to improve, it will also mean people like me turning down opportunities,” reflected 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 actually be the right person,” he said.

On his new academic role – believed to be a first for a UK university – Professor Sands said his title reflected 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.

“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 recalibrate 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, he said, 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,” Professor Sands recalled.

“I thought that was really 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,” he said.

The idea of the new professorship arose, he added, in a 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 said.

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Reader's comments (3)

I disagree that special groups should be able to become academics just to make up the numbers. Surely the selection panel should be allowed to choose the "BEST" candidate for the position so that the University can boost its academic performance. I would have thought that racist policies should be outlawed. Unfortunately my own experiences as a Tenured Lecturer at an Australian indicated that the "best" candidate is not always chosen. I was not given a promotion because the female numbers were low, but my performance was far stronger than any other candidate - Visiting Professor at Universities in England, Finland, Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Belarus, Scotland. I also won a Vice Chancellor's Award for Excellence for setting up the Small Business and Entrepreneurship courses, and had far more publications and presentations than any other candidate.
You are absolutely correct. There is also the confusion about what constitutes an ethnic minority. Many minority groups are overlooked if the characteristic used to determine who is or is not an ethnic minority is colour of skin only. There are others.
But are they underrepresented? Broad brushstroke statements without the data to support what is being asserted helps no ones case.