Britain’s first ethnic minority High Court judge, Sir Mota Singh, has passed away at the age of 86. Ajit Sat-Bhambra remembers him as a trailblazer, a devout Sikh and a cherished friend
The long and distinguished legal career of the late Sir Mota Singh, whom I was fortunate enough to call a friend, is already well documented. But perhaps less well known is the path that led him there.
A traumatic experience shaped his early life: the death of his father, killed when Mota was only 16 years old, leaving him and his five younger siblings to be raised by their mother. Thus, while still only a child himself, he had to assume the role of father-figure and leave school to support his family, despite his evident academic gifts.
This did not deter him and he studied Law by night, completing his studies in England before returning to Kenya to practise. By the time we first met, he was a solicitor with an office near Nairobi town hall and I was headmaster of a local secondary school. As we built up our acquaintance at social events, I became aware of the sharp analytical mind at work behind his charming, God-fearing exterior and slowly began to understand the essence of what made him the man he was, both professionally and personally: he was disciplined to the core in everything he did.
By 1969, we had both migrated permanently to the UK and the friend I now called Bhaji (brother) had already risen to become the country’s first Sikh QC.
I was now running Sandesh, a Punjabi-language magazine, in London, and Bhaji often advised me – without charging any fee – on legal matters connected with the magazine. He was always generous with both his time and his knowledge.
Yet his work, however important, was only one part of his life. His Sikh faith was what truly sustained him, and he never began a day without a prayer – something he also counselled me to do. He once gave me a special portion of the Holy Granth, which he recommended I read in peace ten times a day. I still have that page.
Indeed, whenever anyone asked him for legal advice, he would always refer them to certain relevant lines from the Holy Granth, and before delivering any judgement in court he would always go to the temple to pray. He was, I think, as much a spiritual as a legal advisor.
Sir Mota was a man of certain contradictions: hugely driven, yet also modest about his achievements, including his knighthood for services to the judiciary and charitable works; very methodical yet also a great lover of the arts, especially Urdu poetry and music; morally strict, yet also kind and non-judgmental.
I asked him once what was the maximum sentence he had ever imposed, and he told me he had given a robber 14 years. This illustrates his dedication to his profession, and also the strong moral stance he always held – he saw crime as more than just legally wrong.
In later life, Sir Mota acted as the vice-chair of this magazine’s sister organisation, The Democracy Forum, from its inception in 2009 until his death on November 13 this year. He was a key part of the organisation, acting in an advisory capacity and helping to forge links with various parliamentarians and members of the legal fraternity. We will all miss his gentle presence, because although he did not laugh readily, there was always a smile behind his eyes.
Sir Mota leaves behind a wife, Swaran Kaur, two sons and a daughter. As well as being a huge loss to them, his death leaves a great gap in the Sikh community, for which he did so much good work.