Sylvia Denman obituary

Barrister and author of the 2001 report that highlighted widespread racial discrimination in the Crown Prosecution Service

Sylvia Denman, who has died aged 86, was an academic, lawyer and public servant who worked hard to advance the causes of race relations and equal opportunities.

Her inquiry into race discrimination in the Crown Prosecution Service, which reported in 2001, helped the organisation move forward after a period of febrile internal politics and mistrust among many of its black and ethnic minority staff.

After coming to Britain from Barbados to study law at the London School of Economics, Sylvia was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1962. She started her career in academia before becoming an early member of the Race Relations Board (1970 to 1976) and of the Equal Opportunities Commission (1975-76). In 1983 she was appointed as principal equal opportunities officer and later deputy director of education at the Inner London Education Authority (Ilea).

In 1999 the director of public prosecutions, Sir David Calvert-Smith, asked Sylvia to chair an internal inquiry into race discrimination in the CPS. This was shortly after the publication of the report of the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which had brought to wider public attention the dangers of “institutional racism”, and was a time of acute sensitivity about race relations in the criminal justice system.

The CPS had been subject to findings of race discrimination against its own lawyers in the employment tribunal, and was under threat of a formal investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality unless it launched its own inquiry.

I was appointed by Sylvia as counsel to the inquiry. We were based initially on a deserted upper floor of Millbank Tower, Westminster, and later in offices in Old Queen Street, interviewing witnesses throughout the organisation. Sylvia was determined that we should speak to staff at all levels of the service and hear their experiences directly.

The investigation met with some hostility. However, Sylvia was astute, fearless, compassionate and fair-minded and quickly won the confidence of those we met, although she was capable of being severe, particularly when she felt she was not being dealt with directly. “They take us for fools,” she would say, witheringly, if a senior prosecutor had tried to brush her off.

It was a testament to Sylvia’s integrity that she delivered a fair and critical report while maintaining a high level of trust within the organisation. Some black and ethnic minority lawyers were concerned at what they perceived to be endemic racism and were not convinced that Sylvia’s inquiry would have the impact of a full-scale investigation by the CRE, while some white lawyers felt under threat from a perceived backlash of political correctness. Sylvia addressed these concerns in an even-handed and practical way, without pulling her punches.

In 1991, the Judicial Studies Board (now the Judicial College) set up the ethnic minorities advisory committee under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Brooke. Sylvia was appointed to the committee and took a leading role in delivering the first training programme in race relations for circuit judges in England and Wales, from 1994 to 1996.

She was a board member of the Housing Corporation from 1996 to 2002 and from 1996 to 2000 served as chair of the Camden and Islington health authority.

During her time at the health authority, Sylvia developed a particular concern for the treatment of mental health in the community. She was thrust into the public eye when criticisms were made of local mental health services for their handling of the case of Martin Mursell, a diagnosed schizophrenic who in 1994 killed his stepfather and left his mother for dead.

An independent 1997 inquiry led by Lincoln Crawford into the care of Mursell highlighted shortcomings in the treatment of patients with mental illness in the community after their release from hospital. Although Sylvia considered resigning after publication of the report, she stayed on and was instrumental in overhauling the authority’s processes in the light of its recommendations.

Sylvia was born in Barbados to Euleen (nee Alleyne) and Alexander Yarde, and went to school there at Queen’s college. Her academic career included lectureships in the UK (at Oxford Polytechnic, 1965-76, which became Oxford Brookes University), the West Indies and the US, where she was Fulbright fellow at New York University in 1982-83.

She was a governor of Oxford Brookes and of Haverstock school in Camden, and a trustee of the Runnymede Trust. In 1994, she was appointed CBE for services to race relations and equal opportunities.

Sylvia was a generous, warm and supportive friend, and godmother to several of her friends’ children. She took an active interest in theatre, music and the arts, and always maintained her strong links to the Caribbean.

Her marriage to Hugh Denman in 1962 ended in divorce in 1970. She is survived by her daughter, Sophia, and two grandchildren, Adam and Ben.

• Sylvia Elaine Denman, barrister, born 16 September 1932; died 1 May 2019


Daniel Stilitz

The GuardianTramp

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