For this year’s Black History Month, 1MCB celebrates the life and achievements of Leonard Woodley, who served as Head of Chambers between 1988 and 2000. Leonard (“Len” as he liked to be called) was the first Black Caribbean barrister in the country to become a QC (now KC), a Recorder of the Crown Court and a Bencher of The Inner Temple. An early proponent of “radical lawyering”, Len played a pivotal role in many of the Black communities’ protests and racial justice campaigns.
Born in the Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Len initially worked as a clerk and then as a commercial administrator. Having long harboured the desire to study law, he chose to leave and sailed to the UK in 1960 to pursue his career ambitions. Following the completion of his legal studies, Len was Called to the Bar by The Inner Temple in 1963. Motivated by the desire to facilitate access to the profession for underrepresented groups, as well as by his own experiences of discrimination, he would later establish the Leonard Woodley scholarship to be awarded to Black students at The Inner Temple.
Len’s career was marked by the tireless pursuit of justice and racial equity. He appeared in some the most significant and ground-breaking Black civil liberties cases, such as the “Mangrove nine” trial, where nine Black protesters demonstrating against discriminatory policing were prosecuted for rioting; all nine would later be acquitted after trial at the Central Criminal Court. He also played a central role in community-based lawyering, working with the Darcus Howe Action Committee, which campaigned vociferously for Darcus Howe’s release following his charge and imprisonment for what were widely believed to be political reasons. It was at one of the Action Committee meetings that Len came up with the legal strategy that would lead to Howe’s success at the Court of Appeal and immediate release.
Len was also an advisor to the Scarman Inquiry into the Brixton Uprisings in 1981, which followed ongoing police brutality the Black community were subjected to and the disproportionate use of ‘stop and search’ powers known as the ‘sus law’ to arrest young Black men. The sweeping powers under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 which gave police the power to arrest anyone suspected of loitering with the intent to commit an arrestable offence were repealed on 27 August 1981 in the aftermath of the Brixton Uprisings.
As head of chambers, Len marked his support for the struggle against South African Apartheid, an institutionalised system of racial segregation and oppression, by inviting Nelson Mandela to be an honorary Door Tenant. Mandela accepted this honour, whilst serving a life sentence, and his name remained on the door until he became President of South Africa in 1994. Mandela would later say that the support he had received from the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK was ‘a source of real inspiration’.
Len’s contributions to Chambers, the profession and society continue to reverberate, and his fierce commitment to civil liberties and racial justice continues to underpin 1MCB’s work and ethos to this day.