Britain’s first Asian woman judge in the high court said a stint at a law centre in a deprived area of Leeds when she was an A-level student sparked her interest in the profession.
Bobbie Cheema-Grubb QC, who specialises in cases of homicide, terrorism, fraud and corruption, was last month assigned to the Queen’s bench division.
At a keynote speech at the Law Society in London last Wednesday (4), Cheema-Grubb said during her A-levels, one of her teachers suggested she carry out a placement at a local law centre in an area of Leeds where there had been riots.
It was there that the teenage Cheema-Grubb was able to use her Indian language skills to translate for Asian workers who were being exploited.
“I took to it immediately. I loved it,” she said. “I could translate for the young women who had been working in sweat shops and the young men in factories. They had been taken advantage of and found their way to a law centre.
“It was acceptable for a 16- year-old to attend an industrial tribunal, to go and be a McKenzie friend (helping someone who has taken legal action).”
Cheema-Grubb told the audience, who gathered to celebrate Diwali, that her dream while growing up was to be an astronaut.
“I didn’t want to be a barrister and even less did I want to be a judge. I started out wanting to be an astronaut,” she said.
“I sent a letter to NASA asking them to give me some sort of apprenticeship as a teenager, and they didn’t bother to reply.
“It wasn’t until then that I realised perhaps a little Indian girl from Yorkshire was never going to make it onto the space programme of the US.”
A mother of three, the barrister is the daughter of Sikh Punjabi immigrants who arrived in the UK in the 1960s and settled in Yorkshire. She was called to the bar in 1989 and became a QC in 2013.
Cheema-Grubb has been described as “a wonderful performer in court”. She is set to take up her new post later this month.
The 49-year-old’s appointment now takes the number of female high court judges to a record high of 23 (out of 108), a statistic which has doubled in the past decade.
Cheema-Grubb told the gathering that following her time at the law centre, she decided to pursue a career which had “something to do with righting injustice and lifting up the poor and needy”.
“I was amazed how easy it was (to work in law) if you knew the language and were articulate and fearless. I was a teenager who wanted to be an astronaut, I was completely fearless,” Cheema-Grubb explained.
“What mattered was this woman who couldn’t speak English, who was being oppressed by her employer and wasn’t being paid the rate she had been offered for the sewing she was doing at home.
“That made me so angry. It was glorious to be able to do something about it. I had some good results and I was hooked. That’s where it all started.”