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The Life & Times of
Sir Mota Singh
Part II





Continued from yesterday …


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 the Middle 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 Times headline 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 the Race Relations Act was 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 the London 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 land mark case, which had been lost in the High Court and predicted to be lost on appeal in the Court 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 a Recorder by 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, the Daily 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 the Old Bailey which, 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's Race Advisory Committee
*   Chairman of the Statutory Disciplinary Committee of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.
*   Trustee of The Windsor Leadership Trust
*   Trustee of the Ethnic Minority Foundation
*   Vice President of Doctor Barnado's Home
*   Chairman of Guru Nanak Education Trust
*   Chairman of Sikh Federation
*   Chairman of the European Section of the World 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".


May 11, 2014


Conversation about this article

1: Veer Singh Gill (Australia), May 10, 2014, 10:52 PM.

Sir Mota Singh's story lends additional pride to the Sikh psyche worldwide. Would make our Gurus proud.

2: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 11, 2014, 4:18 PM.

"Kaho Naanak sabh tayree vadi-aa-ee ko-ee naa-o na jaanai mayraa" [GGS:383.12] - "Says Nanak, this is all Your greatness; no one even knows my name." What better tribute for Sir Mota Singh ji than this one?

3: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), May 11, 2014, 7:53 PM.

Varinder Singh has sketched the remarkable and amazing life of Sir Mota Singh, who without ethnic, cultural or geographic boundaries does us all proud. His life is the story of triumph over adversity. Triumph of the best human traits of humility, diligence, forbearance, rectitude, probity, sagacity and comity over their opposites. Mota Singh embodies the ethos of a Gursikh and therefore we have special pride in his achievements and look up to him as a role model. Being my first cousin and my 'bhaji wade' I take special pride by association. I have known his loving nature, readiness to help and provide pro bono or nishkam seva. Besides, he is a great listener, learning much about the other while revealing less about himself. His mother, my lovely aunt Harnam Kaur, has not only given bed-rock of support but also imparted the best of qualities one could wish for. She exudes, lives by and communicates through the language of unbound love for all who come across her.

4: Sarvjit Singh (Massachusetts, USA), May 11, 2014, 8:27 PM.

This is an amazing story. I wish there were more of his kind in USA and Canada. We could use them here.

5: J S Grewal (Auckland, New Zealand), May 13, 2014, 3:36 AM.

What a lovely story. Sir Mota Singh has succeeded in a tough industry and remains an inspiration to us all. His success has paved the way for many other successful Sikhs at the Bar and the Bench such as Justice Rabinder Singh. With all this success, Sir Mota Singh remains humble and a model citizen to all.

6: Sangat Singh  (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 13, 2014, 7:09 AM.

#5 Jasjit is our grandson and is reading law at the University of Auckland and has also been invited for the Honours course. If this was not enough, he is doing accountancy as well. He has rightly chosen Sir Mota Singh as his role model. [And, may I add: Jasjit is saabat soorat, and 6'3" tall ...]

7: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), May 15, 2014, 5:45 PM.

Given all the hurdles and challenges Sir Mota Singh had to face before he got where he did, I can guarantee you that he made it each time after having to prove, at each juncture, that he was at least twice as good as everyone else around.

8: Bikram Singh (India), June 06, 2014, 8:19 AM.

Sir Mota Singh's story is an answer to those amongst us who are ready to discard their identity at the drop of a hat(!), thinking it'll help them in progressing in life.

9: Martin Weaver (United Kingdom), September 05, 2014, 9:30 AM.

I have seen His Honour in action in court as a judge. He must be one of the most astute people I have come across, and is impeccably fair and even. The calm he brought to the courtroom, without any theatricals, allowed a full appreciation of the complex nature of the proceedings, which for a jury is essential if they are to focus on the facts.

10: Colin Roth (Chiang Mai, Thailand), September 14, 2016, 12:04 AM.

Dear Varinder: You may remember me from S Kensington/Clarence? I came across your moving article somewhat by chance, and thought it would be nice to make contact again after all these years. Best wishes to you and all the family.

11: Varinder Singh (Sutton, Surrey, United Kingdom), November 29, 2016, 6:15 PM.

Dear Colin, how so very thrilling to read your posting, re-establishing contact after decades. Mohan and I often recall our glorious days in Edith Terrace, Chelsea where the three of us shared a flat. Brother Sir Mota Singh passed away recently and Mohan is rather poorly but both he and I will be delighted to hear from you. My email address is: Look forward to hearing from you. With best wishes ...

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Sir Mota Singh
Part II"

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