“I set up my own firm because I didn’t want the crumbs left on the table”

Sundeep Bhatia, former criminal practitioner turned employment lawyer, talks about making his science teacher despair, why he decided to set up his own firm, and the case he won that was “more fascinating than any detective novel”.
Sundeep Bhatia is a man of Indian heritage with closely cropped grey hair. He is smiling and wears a dark pinstriped suit, pale grey shirt and navy striped tie.

The lawyer in me first came out when I was about 10. Back then, I was debating with pupils in classes three or four years older than me. I was never shy about public speaking. My parents came to the UK from India to join the NHS in the 1950s, and they wanted me to be a doctor too. It wasn’t for me – I made such a mess of dissecting a frog that my biology teacher said if I was going to take GCSE Biology, then he’d quit.

There is still a glass ceiling in the City for people from ethnic minorities. South Asians are disproportionately represented in lower paid work like legal aid. While things are getting better, this is a big reason people set up by themselves. But it’s not all about discrimination; there is a strong culture of enterprise and resourcefulness amongst South Asians.

I didn’t want the crumbs left on the table. I had worked for someone else for five years in criminal legal aid until those around me said “why do you want to go out in the middle of the night and take the crumbs from the table?”. This really hit home so I set up by myself and got my own criminal contract.

One of my first cases as a sole practitioner was a murder that happened in Venezuela. It was more fascinating than any detective novel. There were even claims that the accused took part in voodoo rituals. My client and his friend had gone to Caracas and the friend’s wife flew out and never came back. The police there found her body in bushes, wrapped in bin bags. My client was accused of conspiracy to murder.

One day I was rooting around in Caracas and then the next I was giving evidence at the Old Bailey. The prosecution alleged my client had brought the bags from the UK, and I had to go to Venezuela and find the bags so I could prove they were available there too. Eventually my client was acquitted.

I’m really worried about the state of criminal justice. I started working in criminal legal aid in 1994, when it was reasonably well paid. Those rates stagnated and have been repeatedly cut back. You can’t make a stable living from legal aid now. I’m 56 and that’s about the average age of criminal legal aid solicitors.

I was proud to fight the Legal Services Commission about its plans for price competitive tendering back in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2013. If they had gone ahead with their plans, the result would have been catastrophic for small firms, including many being wiped out. We took the Commission to court, and it backed down. I even debated Lord Carter, who did the review of legal services procurement, in the Law Society library over this matter.

Legal aid work is backbreaking. It’s been nearly thirty years since I started working in this area and it has got big problems. I gave up my own criminal practice in 2006 as I could see the way it was going. The British criminal legal system was once a world leader but it is now a pale shadow of what it was before, in my opinion. It exists on the good will of solicitors and barristers who believe in the greater good.

There is discrimination in law, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s getting better and there’s a lot of opportunity out there. People need to bang their drum as hard as possible, so they are not left on the bottom rung of the ladder. Take opportunities you are given. Create your own opportunities. I put myself forward to publicise myself and to help others.

Some of my proudest achievements have been trying to help other people. I’ve been chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers and of the Regulatory Affairs Board of the Law Society, and sat on both the Law Society’s Council and Equality and Diversity Committee. If you have the ability, push yourself and get out there. Never say you can’t do something. Say you’ll give it a go.

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