Barrister Tunde Okewale (MBE)’s Story is Inspiring


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Breaking into the field of law is difficult enough without having a 2:2 in your law degree as a young black man from Hackney. The legal profession is hyper-competitive and to many employers, the lack of satisfying degree evidence, i.e. a 2:1, is reason enough to not even consider someone’s application, regardless of their race. Now consider that only 12% of barristers in the UK originate from a black or minority ethnic background. Trying to enter the field of law with ‘substandard’ qualifications as a black person in the UK is a tough task. Overcoming those obstacles to the tune of an MBE and a successful legal career therefore, is no small feat.

“When I finished university, I was working part-time, then I realised my part-time jobs were not going to help me get into law. However, my first ever legal experience was obtained by me asking a colleague at work if they knew any Barristers. I changed my day shifts to nights at Sainsbury’s so I could volunteer at a solicitors firm during the day. I did that for free, and I did such a good job, that they offered to pay me. I was able to quit my job at Sainsbury’s and work part-time at the solicitors firm whilst studying at university.

I was also fortunate enough to come across an organisation called ‘From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation – FBMF’, who worked on getting young boys who got kicked out of school, back into school and mainstream education. I volunteered with the organisation and helped them with their youth outreach projects both in the UK and Jamaica.

However, post-graduate fees aren’t cheap, and I still wasn’t making enough money. I told them I may have to stop doing this to pursue more profitable avenues. They said ‘no, don’t do that, we’ll give you a scholarship and help you pay for law school’, this contribution covered my fees and as a result of this they made me a director of the charity.”

Facing industry-wide racial barriers without the ‘right grade’ unfortunately, means many young black aspiring law professionals end their journey here. Addressing such issues head-on is ‘Urban Lawyers’, the organisation Tunde founded to help people get into the profession and educate people on their legal rights.

“In the beginning I used to be the ‘Urban Lawyer” (meaning inner city) and go around to areas like Peckham and Brixton on my ones just walking into the hood and asking people if they wanted to know their legal rights. Initially, people thought I was the police and I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Then community leaders and local artists such as Swiss from So Solid gave me the initiative and legitimacy within the communities and that changed things.

I did a session at Battersea where he came out and spoke and after that, I started meeting with other people. The people in my community that I’d worked with trusted me. Eventually I set up Urban Lawyers to focus on two central aims – ‘can you help me get into the profession and can you tell me what my legal rights are?”” recalls Tunde.

Urban Lawyers aims to provide inspiration and education to all who have or will come into contact with the law and/or legal profession. It will provide inspiration to law students from non-traditional backgrounds through online resources, networking and educational events and initiatives. It will also support, finance and facilitate the education of young people about their legal rights and civic responsibilities.”

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By the time Tunde began practicing law, his prior endeavours and upbringing in Hackney meant he could tap into an already-extensive network. “I was getting referred murder cases when I was just eight months qualified. Ordinarily, people that have been doing a job for ten years aren’t getting cases like that. So my career trajectory was like POW. Rather than starting off with the theft of a Mars bar, I’m dealing with stuff like kidnaps and attempted murder.”

Much of Tunde’s work involves representing clients who face prosecution for their misuse of social media and music videos through things like rap beef, displaying weapons in music videos and portraying expensive, yet unexplainable lifestyles online. But how important is social media as a policing tool? One urban myth would tell you that the police have a guy employed to scour social media all day long looking for foolishness, so are such claims true?

“Let’s say for example there’s intelligence, be it from an informant or barber shop whispers, that this person is a drug dealer. The police go on the person’s Instagram, sees wads of a cash, expensive trainers, luxury items, then further research is done to identify that this person doesn’t have a source of income to support the lifestyle he portrays online.

That can then be the foundation of a much deeper investigation to find out how that person is sourcing his income, which then may result in surveillance, so social media can often be used as the first step for further research. There’s not necessarily someone sitting down 24/7 looking for anything and everything, but it may be the case that there are certain people on the police’s radar, who are then monitored via their social media profiles.”

The very existence of these tools means people are now documenting their own crimes, illegitimate earnings and unexplainable lifestyles in one convenient place; essentially doing the work of the police for them. They say no smart criminal talks often on the phone, but in 2017 that might translate to; only a fool makes ‘business’ calls on a smartphone. So how does a smartphone differ in terms of its strength as a piece of evidence in court compared to old Nokia phones and the like, which are far less technologically advanced?

“When the police are relying on telephone evidence, it is often because the phone has incriminating material on it and  is found in close proximity to that person. The issue is frequently whether they can prove that the phone belongs to that person then, if they can prove that, can they prove the meaning of the contents?. Can you prove this phone belongs to the person and if it does, is there an alternative or innocent interpretation or explanation for the material contained on it?”

Given the technological superiority of smartphones, I asked Tunde if old burner phones hold any technological weight in court. “There’s CellSite evidence, which is where they can pinpoint geographically where the phone has been. They can identify where  the phone has moved during the time that  the incident had taken place. It’s not just the contents, but being able to work out where the phone has moved to. If there is CCTV evidence  consistent with you being where the phone has been, that’s one way of corroborating the evidence. The phone is either in your possession or in close proximity, or evidence shows that you’re moving along with the phone.”

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Whilst social media provides an abundantly clear documentation of many things, there are instances where the police act on far murkier sources of information, as seen in the case of Mark Duggan.

A BBC documentary revealed that the police cannot make public the sources of intelligence that led them to believe that Mark Duggan was the criminal they believed him to be, despite no prior criminal record and an admittance that they received ‘low-grade’ intelligence about him.

There are also serious doubts over whether Mark Duggan had a gun or whether one was planted on him which  – combined with the early smearing of his name at the time his death was reported and the fact his killing was deemed ‘lawful’ –  instils a fear that the police can act based on whatever information they want, in whatever way they  please, with few repercussions. I asked Tunde, who contributed to the report ‘Citizen’s Inquiry into the Tottenham Riots’, to shine some light on the discrepancies around the term, ‘lawful killing’.

“We have to look at the meaning of what a lawful killing is. The law recognises that there may be an instance where you need to use force to protect yourself, and that’s on the basis that you believe your life, property or someone else’s life may be in danger. You’re entitled to use reasonable force, but  this force has to be proportionate. The law also recognises that even if your belief was mistaken, that if it was  ‘reasonable’ for you to have that belief, you may be entitled to act in self-defence.

So if you believe  someone has a gun and is going to use it on you, and as a pre-emptive measure you strike and kill the person, but it subsequently transpires that  the person did not have a gun you may be entitled to rely on self defence, if it was reasonable for you in the circumstances to have that belief and if the force used was proportionate.

The issue with the Mark Duggan case is that there are queries around whether the gun was planted afterwards. The lawfulness of killing in his case revolves around the circumstances in which the gun was located.

There are only two possible explanations from my understanding of the case. Either that he discarded the gun before encountering the police or that it was planted at the scene. The fact that many of the civilian witnesses at the time don’t support the claim that he produced or attempted to produce a gun, is what gives the public concern and has amplified the already capricious relationship between the police and the community.”

Tunde then explained how he believes positive change can be brought about with regards to better policing. “We need more police officers from the communities that are being policed. How for example, can you expect someone, to come from a random part of the country to police your area effectively?

They don’t know what’s going on, they aren’t familiar with the issues within the community. Can we trust that people will be understanding of that with which they are unfamiliar? That person may have preconceptions about young black men, that they’re dangerous and get an itchy finger every time they see one, unless they have that cultural training. People have this attitude that if you become a police officer, you’re a sell-out or you’re a snitch.

This is one reason why the system is sometimes so ineffective, because people would rather complain than engage with it, yet they’re still governed by it. It doesn’t make sense to me. The same bigotry used to label all black boys in “hoods” as being criminals, can’t then be used to say all police officers are bad. Even if you disagree with my proposition, become a police officer and change it. That’s my view, because if you don’t, all you’re going to be doing is allowing the system to get worse, by tolerating it.

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This is not like any other service, where you can switch provider if you aren’t happy with the levels of care – we will only ever be policed by one police force so we should do what we can to ensure that they serve us better. The community has seen too many injustices and been disappointed by too many members of the police service for too long for them to feel like they engaged in meaningful dialogue.”

When Mark Duggan’s death was announced by the media, it was incorrectly reported in a way that suggested Mark Duggan shot at the police. This was later confirmed to be untrue , but the damage was already done. For many, the first digestion of a news story often sets the tone, allowing for a feeling of ‘maybe he didn’t fire at the police but he was probably a criminal anyway’, after it was cleared up. It’s arguably no coincidence that misreporting Mark Duggan’s death ties in with legitimising his criminality and hence, the ‘lawfulness’ of his killing.

“When Mark Duggan’s death was announced he was painted in a particular light. We don’t know where the source of that information came from, the dialogue has been around the information being wrong, with little focus on the source, or how  and why it was not  checked before being reported” says Tunde, so I asked him how such issues can be prevented in future.

“The difficulty with problems like that is they have to be addressed retrospectively. An illustration of this is the Jill Dando case; the evidence was based on gunshot residue and the fact that Barry George had previous convictions. They used that evidence to convict him. It transpired that the evidence used to convict him, was unsafe and should not  have gone before the jury and he was subsequently acquitted. That took years. It took him going to prison and a number of  years for that to happen. Unfortunately, it takes people challenging injustices to prevent them  from reoccurring in the future.

“Many of us subscribe to a culture which automatically believes anyone who may have been in in trouble with the police in the past. My organisation is focused on educating people on their rights and informing them of the remedies they can take when faced with certain obstacles. Education is the most important thing – people that know their rights can avoid getting themselves into situations they don’t need to or ”.

The work Tunde carries out through his organisation, Urban Lawyers, combined with other endeavours like partaking in the ‘Hush the Guns’ project in Jamaica, was recognised with an MBE for services to the community and disadvantaged young people in 2016. Not bad for someone who supposedly had ‘no chance’ all those years ago.


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