The life & times of Sir Mota Singh

Varinder Singh (,
Special to The Post
Born in 1930 in Nairobi, Kenya, Mota Singh was only sixteen years of age when he lost his father, Sardar Dalip Singh, on 30 December 1946.
It was a day of immense religious significance: it was the birth anniversary of their Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh.
On the morning of 30 December, Sardar Dalip Singh had visited the Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Nairobi in celebration of the gurpurab. By midday, he was back at home. Shortly thereafter, he rushed to the rescue of an Indian lady screaming for help for she had been attacked by an African. The latter, seeing Sardar Dalip Singh, took flight.
A long chase ensued. Sardar Dalip Singh eventually caught up with and apprehended the assailant but was fatally stabbed by him.
With five younger siblings - four brothers, the youngest one being only three months old, and a sister - Mota Singh became the head of the family. He had no option but to leave school prematurely to fend for the family, which also included his widowed mother, aged only thirty two, and his paternal grandfather aged sixty two, who had lost his only son.
Mota Singh's school teachers, knowing that he was gifted, convinced his family and relatives that he should resume studies and complete his matriculation.
They undertook to finance his school education. Mota Singh matriculated. After a short stint as a clerk at the East African Railways and Harbours, he secured a clerical position in a European firm of lawyers in Nairobi.
Sardar Dalip Singh had always had high ambitions for his academically gifted sons. He had planned to send Mota Singh first and, in the fullness of time, his other sons to England for further studies. Such plans were now laid bare.
However, at that time, theInns of Courtsin England, which are the training institutions for barristers, changed rules for overseas students, permitting them to complete the first part of the two-part Bar studies by a correspondence course in the country of their residence. For the second part, however, the students had to go to England.
To lift the gloom after the father's death, and bring about a modicum of happiness in the family, the family and relatives decided that Mota Singh should get married.
He wasmarried to Swaran Kaur in 1950. A year later the family rejoiced in the birth of his daughter. Whilst fending for his whole family during day, Mota Singh pursued his Bar studies at night. In 1953, Mota Singh set sail for England, accompanied by his wife and daughter, to complete the second part of the Bar studies,
On arrival in England, Mota Singh took up employment at the Indian High Commission. Mrs Mota Singh, likewise, started working so that the family of three could become self-sufficient. In England too, Mota Singh would work during day and study at night.
Back in Kenya, the second brother, Manmohan Singh, had had to leave school before matriculation to provide for the family. A year later, the third brother, Surinder Singh matriculated and took up clerical employment, like Manmohan Singh, at the Kenya Police to supplement the family income.
Five years after Sardar Dalip Singh's death, the grandfather passed away. Mota Singh was in England at that time.
Mota Singh passed the Bar final examinations in 1955. After returning to Kenya in 1956, he started his own practice as a Barrister in Nairobi. The practice flourished.
In 1959, he wasjoined in his practice by another newly qualified barrister, Sushil Guram, who had studied at Oxford University. There was much in common between the two and they built up one of the most successful law practices in Kenya.
Meanwhile, the second brother, Manmohan Singh, had matriculated. Mota Singh sent him to England in 1959 to study for the Bar as a full time student. Mota Singh also fulfilled his duties as a father-figure to his other siblings in full measure. He raised the younger ones, educated and married them. In 1963 he sent his brother Varinder Singh to England to study Chartered Accountancy.
Mota Singh would not have been able to acquit himself of his responsibilities as a father figure towards his siblings with such generosity as he did, without the unqualified support of his wife.
For their part, Mota Singh's siblings, all retired now, have the utmost love, respect and affection for their eldest brother and, indeed, for their sister-in-law Swaran Kaur.
As a lawyer and as an accomplished public speaker, Mota Singh built up a reputation in Nairobi and he was urged to go into politics. He was elected, at first as a City Councillor and then elevated to the position of Alderman of the City of Nairobi.
He immediately made a mark in the well publicised Council debates.
In the colonial Kenya of 1960s, all the administrative and significant official posts were held exclusively by the English until the mold was broken by Mota Singh in 1961. In that year, he was appointed the first non-English man as the Secretary of the Law Society of Kenya. Subsequent to this, he was honoured with other appointments which included:
* Secretary of theDisciplinary Committee of the Law Society
* Secretary of theCouncil of Legal Education
* Vice President ofJustice, a body affiliated to the International Commission of Jurists, Geneva
* Arbitrator involving Kenya Government, Local Government and Private Organisation disputes
* A panel member involved in drafting legislation to Kenya Parliamentary Elections on a Common Franchise following a Round Table Conference in London
* Chairman of School Governors
* Trustee of various sports and charitable organisation
With such a record, achieved in just six years since he had started his practice at the Bar in Nairobi, and with even brighter future prospects for him there, Mota Singh decided in 1965 to migrate to England.
The leading European and Asian lawyers in Nairobi were in no doubt that he was making a grave mistake; they were only too well aware of the difficulties, even for the English Barristers, of practising at the English Bar, which was, and still is, regarded as a "closed shop."
Such difficulties were brought into focus in the 1950s when a couple of hugely successful senior English Barristers (QCs) in Nairobi had migrated to England to practice there. They failed miserably to get off the ground and were obliged to return to Kenya to carry on their lucrative practices there. What hope was there for Mota Singh, they thought, when he had to contend with two additional and highly significant disadvantages. First, he was non-white and, second, he donned a turban.
Barristers in England were not allowed to appear in a court without a wig.
The English Bar operates in a unique and highly restrictive way. Barristers in England are exclusively dependent upon Solicitors, who have the sole right to instruct them ( "brief" them, in legal jargon). Direct contact between a Barrister and his client is not permitted. In the interests of their clients, Solicitors, for their part, are highly selective when choosing which Barrister they consider worthy of being briefed by them. Unless, therefore, a Barrister has excelled himself at the Bar, built up a reputation, and is of the right pedigree, he has no hope of being briefed by Solicitors, who were all English in those days.
Until the mid 1990s, there were only one or two Asian Solicitors in England, with modest, run-of-the-mill practices. The expectation of an English Solicitor instructing an Asian or any non-white Barrister, however good, in those days was so far fetched as to be non-existent.
It was also impossible for non-white Barristers, if any, hoping to practice at the English Bar, to have any prospect of being admitted as tenants in a Barristers' "Chambers" - a pre-requisite for a Barrister wishing to practice at the English Bar.
It was against this background and against the heavily stacked odds that Mota Singh came to England with the intention of practising at the English Bar.
Mota Singh soon realised that, as a kick-start, he had no option but to seek employment as a legal adviser in any company that would be prepared to employ him.
This did not prove to be an easier route either. For six months, he made numerous applications in response to vacancies but, for all his experience, in each case, he was told that because he had had no legal experience in England, he could not be considered for the vacancy. At the end of six months, he had almost given up and decided to return to Kenya when he made one final attempt.
He responded, by telephone, to a vacancy for an in-house solicitor required in the legal department of a group of property companies. Apart from the customary reply, Mota Singh was told that the company was looking for a solicitor and not a barrister.
As a last ditch attempt, Mota Singh pleaded to be invited for at least an interview. The plea worked. Following the interview, he was short listed and then offered the position.
The legal department at the company dealt with all the Landlord and Tenant disputes of the company. Specialist Landlord and Tenant barristers were frequently instructed or briefed by the in-house solicitors to represent the company in court hearings.
Mota Singh had been at the company for only three months when he reviewed a case and gave his opinion before it was referred to one of the regular specialist barrister.
The barrister was impressed by the opinion. He was candid enough to say that he could not have given a better one. The case was won. The company’s management was thrilled. After a year at the company, Mota Singh approached the Chairman and signified his intention to practice at the Bar.
Without hesitation, the Chairman said: "Mota Singh, you have proved yourself to us beyond our expectations. We will be only too happy to support you at the Bar".
His solicitor brother, Manmohan Singh, managed to secure, through his connections, chambers for Mota Singh in theMiddle Temple. This was only one of the many hurdles that had been overcome. But it was the start of Mota Singh's hugely successful career at the English Bar.
Mota Singh's first brief, from his brother, involved an Englishman charged with a drinking and driving offence. No turbaned barrister had ever been seen in an English court previously. Mota Singh's appearance caused excitement and attracted the English press at large. The courtroom was packed with them and with other barristers to witness the most unusual scene in an English court.
They waited with baited breath to see if the Judge would refuse to "see" Mota Singh in a turban rather than in a wig. The Judge raised no objection. Mota Singh was at his best in court and won the case. The following day,The Timesheadline reported thus: "Barrister in turban wins case".
A highly complimentary account was written about Mota Singh's presentation of the case and about the man himself and his "Temple accent", referring not to the gurdwara but to one of the Inns of Court! The case was also extensively reported in various countries.
It was the establishment of Mota Singh's footprint at the English Bar.
Following the press coverage he had received and continued to receive as a practising barrister, it was not long before Mota Singh was in the public eye and that of the Establishment. When theRace Relations Actwas introduced in the United Kingdom in 1967, he was appointed by the then Home Secretary as one of the twelve statutory members of the Board and served upon it for eleven years until 1978.
He was also appointed by The Lord Chancellor as an Examiner of the Supreme Court and then Chairman of theLondon Rent Assessment Committees.
With the passage of time Mota Singh became one of the much sought-after and a leading "Land and Tenant " specialist barristers in England. He was being briefed by the leading English firms of solicitors acting for the major property companies in the UK.
In a landmark case, which had been lost in the High Court and predicted to be lost on appeal in theCourt of Appeal, Mota Singh argued the case for a day and half. He won the appeal. The case became established law in England.
There was no looking back for Mota Singh. So busy he ended up becoming that he was in court every day. He was always treated with the utmost courtesy and respect by the judges he would appear before.
The appointment of practising barristers to the Judicial Bench in England until the year 2000 was primarily upon the recommendations to the Lord Chancellor by the Senior Judges before whom they had appeared. In a sense, it was the Senior Judges who determined which barrister was worthy of being appointed a Judge.
Mota Singh was already, as it were, "in the eye" of the Senior Judges. His English colleagues at the Bar always maintained that it was not a question of "if" but a question of "when" Mota Singh would be invited by The Lord Chancellor to go on the Bench.
Meanwhile, in 1978, Mota Singh took "silk," meaning that he was appointed Queen's Counsel (“QC“). ‘Silks’ are senior barristers who have excelled themselves at the Bar and once so appointed can, theoretically, be called upon by the Queen to counsel her on a legal matter. The nomenclature refers to the fact that, only permissible after the appointment, the black robes the QCs wear in court are indeed of silk.
In 1979, Mota Singh was appointed aRecorderby The Lord Chancellor, a part-time judicial appointment as a Judge for three years, aimed at assessing how the candidate performs on the Bench before his permanent appointment as Judge is considered.
After three years, in 1982 Mota Singh was appointed a Circuit Judge, the first appointment from a minority ethnic group.
What was even more significant was that for the first time in the English Judicial history, going back to three hundred years, a Judge would sit on the English Bench wearing a turban instead of a horse-hair wig.
The news was reported in newspapers all over the world. Full page articles appeared in the British newspapers. The national English newspaper, theDaily Telegraph, produced an article the heading of which was: "JUDGE IN TURBAN TYPICAL OF AN ENGLISH GENTLEMAN". Another English national newspaper,The Times, similarly produced an article headed "WHY THE TURBAN MEANS SO MUCH TO ME", attributing it to Mota Singh.
His Honour Judge Mota Singh, QC, was assigned to the Southwark Crown Court, a newly built Court specifically to deal with white collar crime in contrast to theOld Baileywhich, also a Crown Court, dealt with murder and rape cases.
Mota Singh had signified that he did not wish to sit at the Old Bailey as he did not relish trying the gruesome murder and rape cases. In later years, Judge Mota Singh was nominated by The Lord Chancellor as one of the four Judges at the Southwark Crown Court, out of a total of sixteen resident Judges there, to try Serious Fraud Cases.
He ended up being the Deputy Presiding Judge at Southwark Crown Court.
In recognition of his achievements and his standing in the legal profession, Mota Singh was honoured by Lincoln's Inn with his appointment as Master of the Bench. His other appointments in England include:
* Member of the Attorney General'sRace Advisory Committee
* Chairman of theStatutory Disciplinary Committeeof theRoyal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.
* Trustee ofThe Windsor Leadership Trust
* Trustee of theEthnic Minority Foundation
* Vice President ofDoctor Barnado's Home
* Chairman ofGuru Nanak Education Trust
* Chairman of Sikh Federation
* Chairman of the European Section of theWorld Sikh Council
Mota Singh retired from the Bench in 2002.
When a Judge retires in England, it is customary for other serving Judges personally known to him, barristers who had appeared before the retiring Judge and others, to assemble in the retiring Judge's Court on his last day as a Judge, to bid him farewell and to sing his praises.
Mota Singh's Court was packed on the day of his retirement with over a hundred Judges which included Law Lords, Court of Appeal Judges and Barristers. The Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Wolf, was also present.
He delivered the main speech during which he expressed his thanks for Mota Singh's services to the English Judiciary.
As a farewell present to Mota Singh, the Southwark Crown Court Judges commissioned an official portrait of him in his robes. The portrait hangs in the Judges Dining room at Southwark Crown Court.
In 2012, Mota Singh was knighted by the Queen for his services to the Judiciary and for his charitable works.
Henceforth, he would be Sir Mota Singh.
It is no small measure of Mota Singh's achievements, when viewed in the context of the extreme adversity he had had to face, beginning at the tender age of sixteen, when his father passed away.
It is no small measure of his achievements at the English Bar and the English Judiciary when viewed in the context of the challenges he had to face and the subsequent changes that have taken place, over the last twenty odd years, making it much easier for Asian barristers to practice at the English Bar.
The changes have opened the "closed shop" doors for them. At the heart of these changes lie, first, the rapid growth in the numbers of firms of Asian solicitors, from whom the Asian barristers are assured briefs.
Second, there now exist Asian Barristers' Chambers, headed by Asians, which ensure the availability of tenancies for the Asian barristers.
Mota Singh's achievements extend beyond his professional life.
He was a keen sportsman, having represented Kenya as its opening batsman in international cricket. He was also an excellent tennis player.
As well, he has been invited to address conferences and seminars, as key note speaker, in the UK, America and India.
HH Sir Mota Singh, as he is now known, is a devout and puran Sikh.
He has parkash of the Guru Granth Sahib at home. When he was on the Bench, he would get up at 2 am and after ishnan, would recite Japji Sahib.
With his advanced years now, he still performs the same task albeit somewhat later than 2 am. At night he recites Kirtan Sohela before retiring to bed.
He is closely associated with his local gurdwara in Southfields, which he visits every week.
With all his achievements, Mota Singh is one of the most humble persons one could come across. He is a good and patient listener, without being judgemental about others.
An Asian broadsheet,The Asian Age, published in England, described him as “The Dignified and Humble Sikh Judge".
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