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Early Ethnic Minority Barristers & the Inns of Court

Miriam and Caroline

Dr Caroline Derry and Dr Miriam Mbah are lecturers from the School of Law, Faculty of Business and Law. They have contributed to a new online exhibition hosted by Inner Temple and in this blog they share a few highlights of the biographies they have researched.

The earliest women barristers in England and Wales, who qualified from the 1920s onwards, included women from across the British Empire. These pioneers joined a small number of men of colour who had qualified at the Bar since the mid-nineteenth century. There was no formal colour bar but imperialism imposed an extraordinary burden upon them: not only did they have to travel great distances to live in a different continent in order to qualify as a senior lawyer, but these barristers were then expected to make the return journey in order to practise. They were not welcomed into the profession in Britain. When women were finally admitted to the Bar following the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, they faced these challenges as well as the sexism which persisted in the profession.

Pioneers and role models

Despite the daunting obstacles they had to negotiate, many of these barristers went on to forge exceptional careers, not only in law but also in politics and often as liberators of their countries from colonialism. In more recent decades, many have made and continue to make careers and outstanding contributions in Britain. The achievements of these pioneers are being celebrated in a new online exhibition hosted by Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court to which all barristers who qualify in England and Wales must belong. OU academics Miriam Mbah and Caroline Derry are among the contributors to the exhibition, and share a few highlights here of the biographies they have researched.

our women - inner temple website image

In 1924, Coomee Rustom Dantra became the first Burmese woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court, while only 18 and still at school. She went on to study law at the University of Cambridge and was called to the Bar in 1928. She became the first Asian woman instructed to appear before the Privy Council before returning to Burma where she practised in the High Court and campaigned for women’s rights. In 1946, she became an assistant prosecutor for the International Military Tribunal in Tokyo.

Ma Pwa Hmee travelled to London from Burma bearing glowing references and was admitted to Inner Temple two days after Dantra. She then overtook her to become the first Burmese woman barrister when she was called in 1926. After returning to Burma she practised in the High Court and in 1935, became Honorary Magistrate (First Class).

The lives and careers of Malawian barristers and independence activists Vera and Orton Chirwa were intertwined. When Orton travelled to London to qualify as a barrister, Vera remained in Malawi with their three children and worked to support him. He returned in 1958 as the country’s first Black barrister. Four years later, Vera was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn. During her studies, Malawi achieved independence and Orton was appointed Minister of Justice. However, by the time Vera qualified the couple had been forced into exile by President Hastings Banda and both practiced in Tanzania. The couple were kidnapped back to Malawi in 1981, convicted in a highly irregular trial, and imprisoned for life. Orton died in prison but Vera was released shortly after his death and is a leading human rights campaigner.

Across the Southeast of Malawi, two prominent men barristers from Nigeria were born. Jeremiah Obafemi Oyeniyi Awolowo (hereinafter Obafemi) born on the 6 March 1909 in Ikenne, Nigeria and Taslim Olawale Elias, born on 11 November 1914 in Lagos, Nigeria.

Influence in West Africa

Beginning with Obafemi, he showed interest in law, policy, and politics from an early age when he held several positions at the Trades Union Congress of Nigeria, and the Nigerian Youth Movement. In 1944, Obafemi moved to the UK to study law at the University of London. He completed his legal studies and was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1946. Before completing his studies, Obafemi authored the Path to Nigerian Freedom where he advocated for an independent federal Nigeria. In 1947, Obafemi returned to Nigeria to practice law and in 1950, he founded the Action Group, a political party that advocated for the end of British colonisation amongst other welfare policies. Obafemi’s political career grew from strength to strength. For example, in 1954, Obafemi was elected the first premier of western Nigeria and later became a member of the Nigerian House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Nigerian Parliament.  At the peak of his political career, Obafemi was caught up in political power struggle which led to his suspension from the national government and later to prison as he was convicted for conspiring with the Ghanaian authorities to overthrow the federal government of Nigeria. Shortly after his release, Obafemi contested for the Nigeria Presidential election in 1979 and 1983 and lost, on both occasion to Shehu Shagari.  Obafemi retired from politics after the second defeat and subsequently passed away on 9 May, 1987 at the age of 78. Obafemi’s achievements and history remain in Nigeria as his picture features on Nigeria's 100 Naira banknote, has a university named after him and his books are read by many to date.

Taslim Olawale Elias was an Attorney-General and Chief Justice of Nigeria and a judge and President of the International Court of Justice.  Before these achievements, in 1944, Elias started his legal career as an LLB student at London University and completed his studies in 1947  by being called to the Bar by the Inner Temple.  Elias continued his legal education by obtaining an LLM from London University and after, a doctorate. Elias has several prominent careers after his doctorate, including working for the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization. His main career development came after the Nigerian independence, when he was appointed the first Nigeria Attorney General and minister of justice.  After his six-year tenure, Elias was appointed Nigeria's commissioner for justice and five years later, in 1972, became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Elias remained in this position until he was elected by the General Assembly and the Security Council as a judge in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). He remained in his position until his death on the 14 August 1991. Elias legacy lives on. For example, a classroom in the Faculty of Law at Maastricht University has been named after Elias.

The lives of these ethnic minority women and men barristers are a testament that law is a versatile degree that can lead to various careers in law, policy, politics, and other professions.

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