Amrik Singh Bilkhu is an assistant criminal defence solicitor with GT Stewart Solicitors in East London. He holds accreditations for criminal law, fraud and advocacy. He qualified in 2001 and has made visits to prisons for many years. As a Sikh he has worn a turban, held together with four pins, for 24 years.
In October 2013 he visited HMP Belmarsh to see a client who was on remand. On arrival he was told that he had to remove the four pins that were holding his turban in place, even though that meant that the religious garment would have fallen apart. The result was that he was refused access to the prison.
Mr Bilkhu brought a claim alleging religious discrimination. Initially the Ministry of Justice defended on the basis that Mr Bilkhu had not been refused entry, but had in fact elected not to proceed with the visit to his client, rather than submit to a search of his turban. Of course, in adopting this approach the Ministry was entirely missing the point. It is therefore no surprise that it has now capitulated and paid undisclosed damages to Mr Bilkhu rather facing a county court trial in May.
Mr Bilkhu’s solicitor Duncan Burtwell, also of GT Stewart said:
The way that Mr Bilkhu was treated in this matter was appalling and it ought never to have been necessary to bring this claim on his behalf.
Any legitimate security concerns relating to Mr Bilkhu’s turban pins could have been more proportionately addressed than by the refusal to admit him to the prison altogether.
In any event, Mr Bilkhu’s attendances at Belmarsh on previous occasions and Belmarsh’s ‘approval’ of his turban pins for subsequent legal visits rendered the entire incident ridiculous.
He also said that Mr Bilkhu had suffered “indignation and distress” which were compounded by effectively being branded “a vexatious liar with nothing better to do than bring minor claims such as this one”.
He pointed out that Mr Bilkhu intended that his action should deter similar incidents from happening in the future.
A Prison Service spokeswoman said:
We respect individuals’ rights to wear religiously appropriate clothing, including hats, turbans and caps.
We do not comment on individual claims.
The case highlights problems that can arise when there are competing rights and protections. It is easy to see why taking pins into HMP Belmarsh would not, under normal circumstances, be permitted. However, is it right to insult someone’s religious observance on the basis that a garment might be used to cause harm?
What is not in doubt is that an approach from the Ministry of Justice which was disrespectful and bordering on flippant was glaringly inappropriate. Further it seems that the prison staff paid no regard to Mr Bilkhu’s status and the obviously legitimate reason for his visit. Further, why did this suddenly become a problem when it had not been for many years?
In the vast majority of cases common sense should prevail. If the Prison Service really does show the respect it claims to then hopefully Mr Bilkhu’s objective will have been achieved and there will be no need for others to be subjected to such inappropriate behaviour.