Inside The Old Bailey: Judge Anuja Dhir KC

Words by
Harry Mount

6th March 2024

Harry Mount talks to Judge Anuja Dhir KC, the first non-white judge to serve at the Old Bailey, part of the City of London Corporation.

I’m sitting in the most famous court in the world,  the Old Bailey, with Judge Anuja Dhir KC in the judge’s seat. Directly ahead of her in the dock are four defendants, accused of the brutal knife murder of a 22-year-old in  Croydon in 2021.

I’m in awe of Judge Dhir’s responsibilities, as well as the surroundings. The Old Bailey is the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, determining the fate of people accused of the most heinous of crimes from  London and the south-east. It’s been on this site since the 16th century. 

Some of Britain’s most famous defendants have been tried here: from Oscar Wilde to Dr Crippen, William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’), John Christie, the Kray Twins and the Yorkshire Ripper. Yet, despite presiding over this hallowed court, Judge Dhir is remarkably calm. 

“Because all the cases at this court are particularly grave — they normally involve the death of a human being,” the judge says, “all of the cases are extremely sad as well as interesting, legally challenging and well-prepared. The cases either involve an intentional death, like a murder or an act of terrorism, or an unintended death such as a health and safety breach that’s led to a death. It is a privilege to be an Old Bailey judge and be trusted to preside over such serious cases.”

Judge Anuja Dhir KC - Old Bailey street
Old Bailey, the street that is home to the Old Bailey courthouse where Anuja Dhir serves as a judge

In 2017, Judge Dhir, a mother of three, became the first non-white Old Bailey Judge. At 49, she was at that time also the youngest to have been appointed to this position. How times have changed since she qualified as a barrister in 1989, working as defence and prosecution counsel until she became a judge in 2012. When she first qualified, she was often mistaken for being a defendant or witness rather than a lawyer. 

“I came from a generation which didn’t expect to be treated equally,” says Judge Dhir, who was born in Dundee in 1968. “It didn’t come as a surprise. But I was the recipient of a huge amount of kindness from other lawyers. For my generation of female, non-white, state-school pupils, with no connection to the bar, I was treated quite well. For many people, the barriers were too high. Lots of very good people dropped out.” 

The judge is also dyslexic. She says, “There are certain things your brain doesn’t take in. Some things you can do well — in my case I found that I could absorb and understand law.

“Dyslexia gives me a better understanding of defendants and witnesses, and an awareness that we must be careful to use language in court that can be understood by everybody. If somebody can’t understand particular words, I can see where they’re coming from.”

Judge Anuja Dhir KC - Anuja Dhir portrait

Photography by Kalpesh Lathigra

Judge Anuja Dhir pictured in her office

Judge Dhir is in court most days, although she also spends a day every fortnight in her role as a Judicial Appointments Commissioner. 

She starts work as early as she can to enable her to plan the day in court and to liaise, when required, with the Old Bailey staff: the list office, the ushers, and the clerks. She admires the witness support team, volunteers who look after witnesses, many of whom have seen “the most harrowing events,” she says. Despite such close, continuous exposure to the worst crimes in the country, she appears heroically unrattled.

Judge Dhir works closely with the Corporation of London, which owns and administers the Old Bailey (the Corporation is also responsible for the Guildhall and Mansion House). In common with the other Old Bailey judges, who she describes as “working as a good team”, she is proud of the work done by the Corporation in supporting events to tackle, for example, domestic violence and knife crime, as well as a wide range of outreach events, which include hosting judges from abroad.

You, too, can visit the Old Bailey, with guided tours in the summer and free access to the public galleries when the courts are sitting. 

Two Sheriffs, elected by the City livery companies, live at the Old Bailey. They invite people to the Old Bailey and run the Sheriffs’ Challenge, a debating competition for pupils in London schools. The final takes place in the Old Bailey’s most hallowed room, Court Number One. Judge Dhir is very involved in the Challenge and in opening up the Old Bailey to people from different backgrounds.

“With visitors from schools, we try very hard to demystify our traditions and to explain to them what the court does on a daily basis,” she says.

Judge Anuja Dhir KC - Anuja Dhir portrait
Judge Anuja Dhir pictured in the halls of the Old Bailey

On the day I met Judge Dhir, Andrew Malkinson, a man wrongly convicted of rape, had his conviction quashed after 17 years in jail. Judge Dhir does not comment on this particular case but is confident that things are now in much better shape than they were.

She says, “The quality of the evidence and the way it’s presented has changed enormously in the 30 years of my career. There are CCTV cameras everywhere. Our mobile phones are little tracking devices. Thirty years ago, we had nothing like this. There have been big advances in scientific evidence. Today, we have a system we can be — and should be — proud of.”

Judge Dhir has grown more used to the most famous court on earth. “I was really excited and a bit nervous the first time I walked in,” she says. “I remember thinking of the famous judges who had sat in that court over the years. The judge’s chair is huge and I quickly realised that it was simply too big for me.”

Today, Judge Dhir has her own chair to suit her. From there she dispenses justice to some of the scariest people in the land — and also dispenses advice to eager, ambitious schoolchildren in Court Number One. “It’s such an imposing room. If you can stand up and speak in that court room with its high ceiling, its history, then you can do it anywhere.”

Harry Mount is a qualified barrister and author of Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever