LONDON: Two years ago, on 13 November 2016, the renowned British Sikh Judge, Sir Mota Singh QC sadly passed away. On 13 November 2018, dignataries, members of the legal profession and guests gathered at Lincoln’s Inn to hear the inaugural lecture by the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Rabinder Singh commemorating the life and legacy of Sir Mota Singh QC
Sir Mota Singh was the first ethnic minority judge in England when he was appointed in 1982. He forsook the traditional judge’s wig for a turban when sitting at Southwark crown court, London, where he served for more than 20 years.
He was born in Nairobi, Kenya, the eldest of seven children – he had five brothers and a sister – of Dalip Singh Matharu, a garage proprietor, and his wife, Harnam Kaur. Aged 16 Mota was forced to assume responsibility for the family when his father was fatally wounded while defending a woman from an attack.
Academically gifted, he was encouraged by his teachers to complete his education, despite being the family breadwinner. He took a clerical position with a firm of advocates in Nairobi and then enrolled with Lincoln’s Inn, London, as a foreign student.
In 1953, accompanied by his wife, Swaran Kaur, and young daughter, he set sail from Mombasa for London to complete his bar exams. He continued to work during the day, as a clerk at the Indian high commission.
He returned to Kenya in 1955 and began to practise at the bar. He soon established himself as one of the country’s leading advocates and was often instructed in proceedings involving the Kenyan government. In 1962 he was the first non-European advocate to be appointed secretary of the Law Society of Kenya.
Despite the prospect of a bright legal career in Nairobi, he emigrated to the UK in 1965, determined to practise at the English bar. Soon the scale of his challenge became clear. After six months of failed attempts to obtain a tenancy in chambers, he was compelled to seek alternative employment and accepted an offer to be in-house legal adviser to a national property company. He thrived, and eventually secured a tenancy at 1 Mitre Court, Middle Temple, to begin practising at the bar.
Mota Singh became a specialist in landlord and tenant disputes, and the counsel of choice for leading property companies, but his first brief, from his brother Manmohan Singh, a solicitor, was to represent a client on a drink-driving charge, which he successfully defended alongside his brother. The image of two Sikh lawyers in tailored suits and white turbans captured the media’s imagination at the time.
In 1968 Mota Singh was appointed as a member of the Race Relations Board. He took silk in 1976 and three years later was appointed recorder; then a crown court judge in 1982. At Southwark crown court he was one of four judges nominated by the lord chancellor to try serious fraud cases.
A devout Sikh, he would rise at two each morning to begin his daily prayer routine. He also served as a trustee of charitable organisations including Barnado’s, the Windsor Leadership Trust and the Democracy Forum. In 2012 he was knighted for services to the legal profession and to charity. He is survived by his wife and their three children.
A ful transcript of the speech by Lord Justice Singh is available at the following link: