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May 12, 2021

Unequal justice

The principle that drives most legal systems is visible on the American Supreme Court building: ‘Equal justice under law’.

The idea is a noble and elegant one: no matter what one’s background, we should have the same access to the law, and be judged the same by the courts. The law applies equally to the child of the wealthiest person as well as the one born into poverty. Without this principle in operation, or at least without it as an ideal, countries turn into feudal entities, where one’s fate is determined by the accident of one’s birth.

The problem lay in the principle’s application. Like many people living in the UK, I was appalled by the Sarah Everard case. Ms Everard was a 33-year-old marketing executive who lived in London. She went missing on March 3. She was kidnapped and murdered; her body was found on March 1. The man accused of the crime is a 48-year-old officer in the Metropolitan Police.

Equal justice under law: this crime was so shocking and horrific that the police moved swiftly to arrest the officer. It highlighted how vulnerable women in the United Kingdom can feel, particularly when alone on city streets. It is not possible to be a woman in this country and to step outside without having to think carefully about one’s surroundings: who is out there? How am I vulnerable? A common pose among British women involves tucking one’s house keys between one’s fingers, with one hand balled up in a fist. To hide this, the hand is held in the pocket. If someone does attempt an assault, it’s then relatively straightforward to jam sharp, cold metal at the attacker.

Women throughout the United Kingdom decided that Ms Everard’s case signalled enough was enough. They held a protest march at Clapham Common, where Ms Everard was last seen. Equal justice under law shouldn’t be an excuse for a lack of judgement: the police used heavy handed tactics. Some were arrested, mainly for violations of Covid restrictions. This sparked national outrage: both the mayor of London and the home secretary demanded an explanation. As a result, there is some serious soul-searching going on, as there should be.

However, as a woman who comes from a Muslim, non-white background, I have to ask: where have the authorities and British society been?

The name Blessing Olusegun isn’t nearly as well-known as Sarah Everard. She was a 21-year-old business student from London. She died in September 2020; she was on a work placement away from her usual place of residence, specifically in the seaside town of Bexhill. She was there to work as a carer for old people with dementia.

Blessing’s body was found on a beach in East Sussex; she was alone and had only a few belongings with her. She was last seen on a security camera, walking towards the beach. There was no reason to think that she was tired of life, nor that she had suicidal tendencies; the cause of death was treated “non-suspicious”. She was recorded as having drowned.

However, note the similarity between Blessing and Sarah Everard: two young women suddenly disappear and are subsequently found dead. One’s death causes the police to spring immediately into action; in contrast, I can honestly say that if it was not for Sarah Everard, I probably would not have heard of Blessing’s case. It took others to notice the parallels between the two cases and the divergence in their treatment to bring it to my attention.

This fits in with my personal experience and the recollections of friends and neighbours. I have been both a witness to and a victim of domestic violence. I have very little doubt that if I were a white Englishwoman this would have been viewed very differently by authorities; no doubt my former spouse would have been locked up. I cannot help but think that there is a certain amount of dismissiveness by the authorities because I am Asian.

Fortunately, not everyone here behaves this way; there are people who genuinely believe in the idea of ‘equal justice under law’. I have encountered people in authority as well as law enforcement who are equally committed to ensuring that everyone is treated fairly.

In Blessing’s case, the Sarah Everard murder may create an altered outcome; the police have stated that they are committed to resolving the mystery surrounding her death. That is an improvement: but it should not have taken the murder of a white Englishwoman to create this change in attitude.

Until such time as there is equal justice under law, I will approach each time I step outside my door with the same trepidation as many women. I will let my loved ones know where I will be and when I expect to return. My mobile phone will be fully charged. As I depart, I will take my keys with me, and clench them in a fist in my pocket. Before I cross the threshold, I will look out, left and right. We don’t have equal justice under law: it doesn’t exist for people of different races; it doesn’t exist between men and women.

The writer is a practising solicitor in England.

Twitter: @shahjhan_malikk