Top police race case lawyer 'failed victims of discrimination'

Natasha Sivanandan - UK lawyer

The investigation into Shahrokh Mireskandari, right, by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) comes somewhat late in the day but is to be welcomed. Mireskandari is the lawyer acting for Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, Commander Ali Dezaei and others in the Metropolitan Police who are bringing racial discrimination claims against the force.

And if, as reported in the press, Keith Vaz, Labour Member of Parliament and chairman of the Commons influential Home Affairs Select Committee, did indeed write to a High Court Judge in relation to proceedings against Mireskandari, not only should the MP be suspended, he should be sacked for interfering (or attempting to interfere) with the independence of the judiciary.

It recently emerged that Vaz wrote to the lists clerk of the High Court in June this year after Mireskandari's firm Dean and Dean, wrote to a number of ethnic-minority MP's claiming that a deputy judge was discriminating against Mireskandari over his attempt to challenge an order to pay costs reaching six-figures that related to a disputed business deal.

Vaz did not mention in his letter to the court that he has a personal relationship with Mireskandari and has allegedly enjoyed hospitality paid for by the solicitor.

The MP and his wife are said to have attended sporting matches and concerts in London in executive boxes funded by Mireskandari's firm, which has given money to Labour. Mireskandari says he has no recollection of paying for hospitality.

In the wake of stinging criticism from a number of MP's, Vaz informed the members of the all-party Home Affairs Committee that he now intends to ask the Committee on Standards and Privileges to investigate the matter. The committee oversees the work of John Lyon, the parliamentary standards commissioner. Vaz has told colleagues he is confident he will be cleared by any investigation.

Vaz wrote to the High Court jointly with Virendra Sharma, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall. Sharma has since reportedly claimed that Vaz had not told him that he had a personal relationship with Mireskandari.

He told The Observer newspaper: "I was not told by Keith that he had a relationship with this man. If I had been told of this, it would have changed the way that I viewed this letter. He should have told me that he knew these people involved in this company."

I confess to not knowing all the exact details of the various cases. But I do know of a number of former clients of Mireskandari who believe that they have been badly advised by him, charged exorbitant fees and then badly treated when they complained. I urge any such former clients to complain to the SRA, even if they are outside the time limit to do so, because this will give the the watchdog a true picture of his activities.

I hope that the SRA are robust in their investigation. I also hope that if Mireskandari is unable to prove the provenance or status of his alleged legal qualifications or if he has failed to declare an alleged previous conviction for fraud in America, then the regulatory body will suspend him from practice immediately.

However, while it is quite right and proper for people such as lawyers and police officers to be held accountable to their regulatory organisations, (and therefore to the public), some of the press coverage of this issue has been particularly virulent. Such high profile cases have been used to discredit those who genuinely wish to challenge racial discrimination in courts and tribunals.

What saddens me is that the cynical posturing of people such as Mireskandari, who appear to be more interested in bolstering their bank balances and egos rather than fighting racism, helps to hide the fact that there are many  "ordinary" people suffering from racial discrimination in the workplace, who simply do not have the money to bring legal proceedings or seek justice.

Legal aid is not available for representation in employment tribunals, despite the fact that most discrimination claims are complex, difficult to prove and require detailed legal expertise. Employers, on the other hand, are insured and can obtain high quality legal advice and representation, so there is no level playing field. The official figures show that only a very small percentage of claimants actually win race discrimination claims: that is not because claimants have poor cases, but because they often have no, or very poor, legal advice and representation.

If the government had any real commitment to equality and human rights, it would provide legal aid to claimants bringing discrimination claims. Such claims should be assessed on their merits, as with other legal aid applications in other areas of law.

In the meantime, if you think you might be affected by discrimination at work, it is worth taking out legal protection cover with your home insurance as this will usually cover you for obtaining legal advice in employment disputes.

* Natasha Sivanandan is a former senior race equality officer and a non-practising barrister.