UWI, St. Augustine Circular, Trinidad & Tobago – Saturday October 6, 2012 – Ladies and gentlemen, graduands, a pleasant good day.
Whereas in the United States of America, graduating classes on occasions such as these are warmed by the marvels of sometimes licentious but livid speeches of television late night talk show hosts and comedians, such as Conan O’ Brien or Stephen Colbert; the tradition of this institution has generally appropriated you with a more sobering, or perhaps sombre lot, of legal practitioners.
Now, while it is true that I was born on the same day as the King of Rock, Elvis Presley, I have been well advised by the most eminent of counsel not to dazzle you with any harmonious song or humour, mostly because I don’t have any. And so I humbly apologise for the absence of the grand entertainment this evening.
So if you expect to find frivolity in these ceremonies, you might want to insist on voting for your feature speaker on a subsequent occasion. Perhaps next year, which would be your alma mater’s 40th anniversary, the process of selection could become democratised and the majority may well want to embrace an attorney-at-jest, instead of a former law lecturer, like myself. However, in the meantime, please don’t leave your seats and ask for your certificates next year, as you’ve already received in any case. We will get through this yet!
A LIFE OF CARICATURE AND CALYPSO
I suppose my presence this evening is Hugh Wooding Law School’s way of acknowledging my recall, or my redemption, not as a lecturer of the letters, but as something much worse I’m afraid, an elected politician and of course, Prime Minister!
And so I can assure you graduands, if you want caricature drawn of yourself in the worst of hues and shapes; if you want more flattering names to be included to your title than what’s on your certificate, then I highly recommend that you enter politics. You can ask your Saint Lucian classmates about one of the well known calypsoes “Kenny” and “Tony” after the ceremony. You see, it’s important that politicians know how to laugh, especially about themselves.
One thing I now know is this: calpysonians cannot do without politicians. They just love lawyers and politicians; but lawyers much less so, because the lawyers occasionally threaten to file suits against them.
So, fear not graduands, I assure you this will not be your final class on the law this evening. I am not the associate tutor who flew in too late. We will not delve into civil law, mixed legal systems, or constitutional and administrative law, which I used to teach at Cave Hill many moons ago.
Nor am I going to engage you with what’s under my other hat, that of Saint Lucian politics. And while I’m sure some of you would have a listen about the fascinating experience I am having implementing the value-added tax in Saint Lucia – yes, we’re only now introducing VAT – and also of tempering high debt-to-GDP ratios, I have a feeling the majority might experience palpable discomfort.
So fear not graduands, for while I am no Rachel Price or Errol Fabien or even a Paul Keens Douglas – he’s more your parents’ speed I must confess; I do appreciate the appetite that you may have for something much more palliative than what your good tutors may have ensured and which you have endured for the past biennium.
A REPAYMENT PLAN TO SOCIETY
However, considering that your school was kind enough to invite me here to Trinidad, these remarks would be remiss if I did not impart something deemed appropriate for the occasion and as a sort of commencement for you into the real world of the legal profession.
Graduands, I am sure that today is a very proud and memorable day in your lives. This would be your second graduation in the field, as you are about to receive your Certificate of Legal Education.
At times like these, your parents would really like a round of applause because they are probably thinking that you can finally start to pay your own bills and loans, and become a source to them, and no longer a sink for all their money. Trust me parents, my daughter went through this too, so I know.
However graduands, you also have a more intangible repayment owed to your society; the citizenry that will expect your service and guidance in matters of the law. They will expect your trust and confidence. They will expect you to assuage their fears and hurt, and enlighten their understanding of the law. They will expect your professionalism.
You in turn ought to be repaid fairly, not merely with remuneration, but with respect.
COMMONALITY AMONGST THE DIVERGENT PATHS
And so, parents’ repayment plans aside, your course to practice the law has meant your sojourn through the Hugh Wooding School of Law. The paths which brought you here were varied I am sure, and the paths that you will travel forward on will also, undoubtedly, be even more divergent.
Many of you might have come through the region’s University of the West Indies. Some of you may have initiated your paths to read law in other jurisdictions.
What brings you here commonly, however, is the desire to practice the law within the Caribbean, and possibly elsewhere.
However, while you are not yet called to the Bar in one of our respective states, you undoubtedly already will have to deal with the perceptions of being a lawyer in the Caribbean.
Already, many in society would feel that you are the elite of your country, a special clique, the select of your cohort; individuals of good standing and influence. In fact, even if you don’t think this, a large segment of society perceives you in that light. And you don’t even have your black gown from Ede & Ravenscroft as yet.
And this is not anything to frown upon. Being different, being world class, saying “no” to mediocrity is a noble pursuit. And whether this was part of your stated aim or not, you are indeed classed apart from the rest.
LAWYERS: ALL OF THE ABOVE
However, as things go, this perceived dichotomy, with all its pluses, also bears its apparent minuses.
Undoubtedly, perceptions of the legal realm and its actors and agents are wildly and generally unflattering. I pause to relate an instance I experienced with an individual regarding their perception of various professions.
And rather plainly, I asked “what is the first idea that comes to your mind when you hear of politicians?”
Without a beat, the response was “Corrupt! Dishonest!”
I then asked further, “Well then, what of teachers?”
“Lazy!” was the retort.
“Rude and aggressive, and really not helpful!”
“Doctors?” And I honestly thought they would have received some mercy.
“Poor at explaining what’s wrong with their patients!”
“Rude, unmannerly and uncoothed.”
And then I asked, “What about lawyers.”
“Thieves! The whole bunch of them.”
If only this were the view of one Caribbean person; but Caribbean society has a strong affinity towards being harshly negative.
So graduands, if there is any consolation for you this evening, despite the perceived peculating ways of lawyers, it is that we are not alone with poor public perception.
When I asked another about lawyers, I was offered a riddle, “What do you call a thousand good lawyers under the sea?” The answer, I was told, is “a good start.” I’m certain you’ve heard that clichéd one before.
And so, almost by default, our people wade towards the ebbs of negativity when it comes to professions and professionals in the Caribbean. The land surveyor steals your land. The doctor makes you more unwell than you were before. The accountant steals your money. And the lawyer, well, all of the above.
DOES REALITY MATCH PERCEPTION?
Of course, the question is this: is this perception of legal practitioners matched by the reality?
While I am confident that the majority of those within the legal practice uphold high ethical codes, there is undoubtedly concern to be expressed. The increasing tendency of lawyers being hauled before disciplinary committees of bar associations and councils solidifies the argument on the side of the claimant public. And sadly, I can assure you, many of these claims are against young lawyers.
A WIDESPREAD CYNICISM
The distrust that exists is not confined to the legal profession. It extends to the very heart of the judicial process. This cynicism is deep, pervasive and worrisome.
Citizens believe that judges are influenced, managed and controlled by politicians. How I wish I was in a position to tell them otherwise. Some believe that judges and lawyers conspire against them, either singly or in tandem. Others complain about what they deem to be outrageous and unjustifiable fees. Still others complain bitterly about the time it takes to deliver justice. The old judicial adage “justice delayed is justice denied” seems no longer to have value or relevance. Then there is the seeming inability of the judiciary to deal with the inefficiency and incompetence of its own. Everywhere, throughout the region, there are tales of cases that were long heard, judgments that cannot see the light of day, undelivered. In all this, the politicians look on helplessly, impotent perhaps, because the requirements of judicial independence command them and dictate to them to keep a safe distance.
The fact is that, given the constitutional protection our judiciary enjoys, the locus of judicial reform really should spring from the judiciary itself.
The cynicism which I speak is even more disconcerting when I hear, for example, that we should retain inherited colonial arrangements such as appeals to the Privy Council, because the investments of foreign companies would be safer under British judges.
The question remains, how do we cure the cynicism, the persistent perceptions, unflattering and destructive as they are?
GRAVITY LIES WITH THE MALICIOUS
So dear graduands, before you might have the chance to practice, to give advice, to give satisfaction to your first client, do believe that you have the weight of intense public perception garnered against you.
Now, you would know very well that perception is often more powerful than truth; and even the proof of truth does not defeat the obstinacy of perceptions in the Caribbean. Our people have a deep seated dogma towards those in the robe.
The perceptions of our lawyers, judges and judicial systems worry me. I am not one of those who subscribe to the view that perception and reality are one of the same. I prefer truth in all its pristine manifestation and glory.
These perceptions are reinforced but are not coupled exclusively by the realities of high levels of marginal literacy, low educational attainment and inadequate social dialogue. This is to say that people throughout the socio-cultural spectrum harbour such perceptions. In fact, the person who offered all these wonderful professional summations I recalled earlier is a university graduate.
The truth is that perceptions of the legal profession, the profession which you are so eagerly awaiting to enter, are determined as much by any one member of the group, as by you. And sadly, the gravity lies in favour of collapsing towards the malicious and the wrongly motivated. But why? Why such a deep seated mistrust of lawyers and the legal profession? And can anything at all be gained from such remarkable wariness and apprehension?
WE ARE THE SYSTEM, THE AUTHORITY
This indeed leads me to another common perception of lawyers: that we have written the laws, we know the loop holes and as such do everything within the law, even though the actions may not be ethical or moral. While I will not lecture you on your morality, it is important still that in practicing the law, whether as a solicitor or legal counsel, as a barrister or attorney-at-law, as a magistrate or even as a Lord or Lady Chief Justice, that the application of ethics is indispensable.
If you write and pass the laws, you are expected to uphold them; for there should exist an almost intimate marriage between you and your creation. And in truth, there is little doubt that many of our laws are designed for the lawyer. In fact the law concedes special privileges to this profession. Just consider the reverence with which Queen’s Counsel, or as you have it here, Senior Counsel, is treated in the courtroom. It appears that we have even written our constitutions in such a manner to insist the counsel of a legal professional in the person of the Attorney General is present at meetings of Cabinet in our jurisdictions, the only professional position so herein stated.
I have often wondered about this, questioning whether the framers of our constitutions accepted that politicians have a proclivity to lawlessness.
BREAKING POINTS DO EXIST
There is a tendency to think that privileges and processes must remain as they are. This is particularly so with age-old professions such as lawyers. However, we must be mindful that society has its limits of acceptability and tolerance. And breaking points do exist. We should not forget that the entire legal profession was abolished in France and in Prussia over two hundred years ago and was only reinstated after it was restructured and redefined.
Is a revolt against the legal profession possible in our lifetime, in our region? Will society deem it necessary to tear down the privileges that lawyers have? Are lawyers absolutely indispensible to society? Will lawyers become an endangered species?
AN INCIPIENT REVOLT
What I can say is that I am deeply despondent and distressed by the number of lawyers who are hauled before disciplinary committees for infractions of various kinds, from professional negligence to simple, ordinary theft, especially of clients’ funds. True, the number of cases is rising and this is explained, in part, by the increasing throughput of lawyers graduating into the profession.
I feel deeply wounded when the infraction is committed especially by one of our own.
Arising out of this is the increasing distrust that the public harbours about the ability of the profession to deal with the cases of misconduct. Questions are now being raised as to whether the profession itself should be trusted to pass judgment on its own. It may not be long again when disciplinary powers are relocated away from the profession to seemingly independent tribunals made up of persons unattached from the legal profession.
And here you may see the first signs of the incipient revolt that I spoke about earlier in this address.
NOT FOR POCKET, BUT FOR PROFESSION
So the stark truth is that while our legal and administrative systems were largely designed by lawyers, whether good or bad, it may not in fact remain so. In China right now, more of their top leaders are engineers, not lawyers. And so in a changing world, and even in the Caribbean where things change just a bit much slower, you are also challenged with a profession that must become exceedingly multi-disciplinary.
Many of you read the law as your second degree, and this certainly cannot be a disadvantage. Indeed, the lawyer with a medical background, the lawyer with an accounting, economics or finance, or one with knowledge in computer science may well have an advantage. My point is that the lawyer with any diverse background enriches what he or she may achieve, particularly if their intentions lie in a very specialised field.
It seems to me that we are slowly inching to the possibility that the law degree in the Caribbean may, as in the United States, become a second degree. But today is not the day to debate the merits or demerits of this possibility.
In some ways, this diversity of skills is necessary for some traditional legal positions. For instance, the tradition has been for registrars of various records to be persons with legal qualifications. However, with the nature of information management systems being skewed towards electronic databases and processes, should such a tradition remain? It would of course be preferable if they could synergise these varied requirements.
In all pursuits within your new legal profession, the amassing of a wide range of knowledge redounds to your benefit. Do not limit what you read. I guarantee you that this inter-mingling of knowledge streams provides interesting possibilities as you unlock your future doors.
The message is simple: you need to customise your opportunities, your future. Do not believe that this is the end of the road of learning. Chart new paths for adding value to your profession; not just to your pocket, but to your being, your country and your region.
A UNIQUE DISPOSITION
For those who are looking to become engaged squarely within the legal practice, be guided of the needs of your Caribbean people, and the Caribbean region.
Sir Hugh Wooding and the other law schools under the Council for Legal Education were established with the Caribbean Civilisation in mind. We have a unique disposition and history, very much unique in comparison to that of our North American and Latin American neighbours. So while we may share great similarities with some of these jurisdictions, the Caribbean hegemony upon the law is peculiar.
This uniqueness does not preclude your participation in jurisdictions far and wide. Never doubt for a moment that we are world class. You are aware, of course, of the recent service of the current President of the Caribbean Court of Justice, Sir Charles Dennis Byron to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, just after serving as the Lord Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court; and even as far back as 1975, we had the assumption of Saint Lucian born, Sir Darnley Alexander to the office of Chief Justice in Nigeria.
And of course, your own, and my dear friend and mentor, the deceased Telford Georges, who served as Chief Justice in Tanzania. And then too, there are the distinguished Caribbean jurists who have been appointed to the International Criminal Court such as Karl Hudson Phillips and most recently Anthony Carmona, who is also a graduate of Sir Hugh Wooding Law School.
Though the Caribbean has decidedly asked that you are equipped to practice here within our jurisdictions, the foundation is there for you to practice anywhere with unquestionable distinction. So never, ever lose your confidence in yourself and in the institutions that created you.
And so graduands, you are much more than your profession may immediately suggest. You must be an advocate and a trustee for the good in society. You are expected to be a contributor to the public weal. You are expected to be about service.
You will have the opportunity to join your Bar Association and make it active. Make it driven towards service. Our legal associations cannot be about just law. They must be predicated upon people, community and our interactions with everyday citizens. This is one of the overtures we can cause for the changing of perceptions.
Change the perception that the law is only for the courts; that the law is covert, and that it’s true meaning cloistered, shrouded and arcane. Make the society understand the law in their everyday lives.
Change the perception that the law is only for lawyers. Help the society feel that despite hardship and social standing, everyone has rights that are to be protected.
Convince the society that they need law, not solely for the sake of lawyers, judges or politicians, or for that matter, for the law itself, but because civilised society cannot do without it. Remember Rousseau, remember Hart, remember even Edmund Burke, distant as they may be in your intellectual firmament at this time.
Change the perception that lawyers are only about rhetoric and eloquent words. Let people know the depth of your profession. That you are managers, that you can make an impact in all fields, in all sectors.
Change the perception that lawyers protect the unlawful actions of other lawyers except when it is convenient. Show society that your profession maintains standards and ethics, by your very actions.
Change the perception that “Law and Order” is just an American cable television series that ran for twenty years and still plays with unending weekend marathons. Let our people know that law and order is still fundamental to our socio-economic peace and development as a region.
CHANGE THE PERCEPTION
Change the perception that lawyers are well-to-do and are always rich!
While I’m sure that many of you have such a desire and will attain it honestly, I know many of you are hoping that I will end my speech by offering legal jobs for the entire graduating class in Saint Lucia. However, the disclaimer is that we’re still experiencing the effects of economic crisis. Like I said, you’re graduating in the wrong year!
But in all honesty, I know that the prospect of getting yourself into the workforce is undoubtedly top on your minds. Lawyers have to eat too, don’t we? And indeed, many of you are looking to find yourselves engaged in corporate and trust law and the like. However, there are needs for lawyers in other fields.
Position yourself accordingly. Consider other possibilities, other opportunities. For example, while legal drafting is seen by some of you as boring, it is in fact a very necessary field within the legal profession.
Let me share a secret with you. When I get overwhelmed with the Office of Prime Minister, I dabble in drafting laws for the state. I do have some Acts to my credit.
CONCLUSION: BE PERSISTENT
If there is one parting message I must implore, that is “be persistent.”
You’ve persisted this long listening to me, and that’s a very good sign.
So, in the face of all the perception, be persistent. Be persistently pleasant. Be persistently polite. Be persistently progressive. Be persistently proud to be a lawyer. Be persistent, until you find perfection in your field, or at least very near it.
May you all persist against perception, and practice the law with enduring integrity and intellect, as your paths, so chosen, may so dictate. This must be your resolve today and for the future.
I thank you and once again, congratulations!