Wednesday, February 21, 2018

As senior counsel elephants trample grass

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Mark Fraser

 Finally, here’s a face to the bygone calling of “solicitor”, generic title for a category of professional no longer listed in TSTT’s yellow pages. It’s a face, smooth and black, and so presentably finished with well-coiffed braids, as to move any Trini party man to ask for a “set”. 

Under “attorney” are listed pages and more yellow pages of names and firms, but no “attorney general”. It’s at the city-centre building named after the Spanish colonial Cabildo that you’ll find live legal bodies classed as attorney and solicitor, and both specified with rank of “general”.

Last week’s front pages show the Cabildo-based Attorney General and the Solicitor General dancing the parang last Christmas, but not at all cheek to cheek. In the moment captured by the photo, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan had asked for the “set”; Solicitor General Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell had moved to the beat; but her eyes showed engagement elsewhere than with her dancing partner. 

Story of their lives: they dance; they talk. Even after she left the Cabildo for Keystone private practice, they still work together on cases as famous as Section 34. But as the double-barrelled surname warns, she could still always be beholden elsewhere.

It was to another double-barrelled surname that she reached last year, looking past Mr Ramlogan as if he wasn’t there. Solicitor General Donaldson-Honeywell wrote directly to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, reporting sensational concerns about lawyers and prison inmates, and asking for an intervention. 

For the unlearned, the law can be an opaque language. The hot-button bits from Mrs Donaldson-Honeywell’s August 30 letter to the Prime Minister were enough for non-lawyers’ eyes to glaze over. To what “unethical business venture” was she referring, such as “may amount, inter alia, to breaches of professional ethics by the attorneys involved…which may have the effect of perverting the course of justice in litigation against the State”?

It ought to be ascertained, she argued, “whether there has been over the period from mid-2010 a conflict of interest in certain key office holders increasingly taking action to support the said unethical business for direct and/or indirect financial gain”. Here was Senior Counsel talking to Senior Counsel.

 Listening in, I could deduce that some crookedness, characterised as a “business venture”, was being alleged. On the part of whom, and how: that wasn’t made explicit.  

But the idea of the Solicitor General bypassing the Attorney General, to urge the Prime Minister to put a hand, was breathtaking. Are those two women friends, members of the same lodge, or closet participants in some prayer group? What allowed Ms Donaldson-Honeywell to hold such expectations of Mrs Persad-Bissessar?

The Prime Minister, it turns out, is more likely to belong to the same lodge as the Attorney General. To whom she promptly referred the letter he hadn’t been meant by its writer to read. 

The sequel was more bizarre. Senior Counsel Ramlogan coached Senior Counsel Donaldson-Honeywell into writing a follow-up letter, expressing confidence (that she had earlier lacked) in the Attorney General’s handling of her concerns. No longer did she need St Clair Avenue senior counsel.

Stamped “confidential and without prejudice”, the letters had nevertheless entered the T&T “public domain”, having been delivered there by some avenging angel of the public’s right to know. As a “leak”, the letters hardly attracted attention as scandalised as that connected with the Flying Squad. It’s only idle to speculate on application of the Latinate legal principle, cui bono, or who benefits from this?

It turns out that there’s more to be derived than the satisfying prospect of discomfiture for Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, a man who has richly earned his in-your-face unlovability. The convict-lawyer racketeering “business” had presumably prospered inside his Cabildo chambers, under his heavy-breathing watch. Here, now, is the last straw: he had to go, or at least to step aside, while an “independent investigation” proceeded.

By mid-week, it had taken a fourth senior counsel, Israel Khan, to interrogate the former solicitor general’s legalese, and to translate their import into English accessible to readers like me distinguished only by lack of legal credentials. Who or what is to be investigated? Mr Khan asked, elaborately dissecting Mrs Donaldson-Honeywell’s letters, and judging them guilty of grave judicial shortcomings. 

The former solicitor general, he charged, had called for an investigation, but had assumed no responsibility, while still in the position, to supply material for terms of reference. “To date,” he wrote, “she has brought not a shred of evidence to substantiate” her allegations of a “conspiracy”.

As I write, Mr Khan’s intervention is yet to be challenged. Nor has Mrs Donaldson-Honeywell answered the professional dressing-down that it entailed. If the former solicitor general has contributed little more than rhetorical urging for an investigation, her achievement hardly extends beyond supplying moral encouragement for Keith Rowley, rampaging by night on PNM platforms, demanding an independent investigation.  

The Law Association, the Prison Officers Association and other voices chorusing support of that cause are set to be disappointed that the work not done by the former solicitor general will need now to be done by whoever is left. Here, then, is a senior-counsel dereliction to parallel that of High Court judges retiring without delivering outstanding judgments.