The late Karl Hudson-Phillips, who died yesterday in London, was first and foremost a brilliant lawyer. In this profession, as the many tributes from his legal colleagues demonstrate, he enjoyed unparalleled respect and approbation. He was also, for a relatively brief period in his life, a politician and, as is typical for politicians, his legacy in this area is more mixed.
Elevated to Queen’s Counsel after just 11 years in practice, Mr Hudson-Phillips’ legal acumen would prove the award well-deserved. In a media release, the Law Association described him as “a powerful legal luminary and an outstanding and formidable advocate, whose career spanned over 50 years at the local and regional bars (and) a mentor, friend and benefactor to countless junior counsel/attorneys around the region.” In this regard, Mr Hudson-Phillips influenced Caribbean jurisprudence as well as generations of lawyers who came after him. His role as lead counsel in the Grenadian murder trials resulting from the assassination of Maurice Bishop and his cabinet in 1983, his prosecution of the Chadee gang, and countless other notable cases marked him as a prime practitioner of rule of law in Trinidad and Tobago and the region.
Appointed Attorney General by Dr Eric Williams in 1969, Mr Hudson-Phillips’ legal and personal skills were tested to the utmost during this foray into politics. Just one year after his appointment, the fledgling AG would be the government’s spokesman during the Black Power uprising. Thereafter, his name would become associated with the infamous Public Order Bill, which was Dr Williams’ attempt to restrict the rights of citizens after the protests. That legislation failed to pass, but Hudson-Phillips achieved a different kind of legal notoriety through a calypso written by The Mighty Chalkdust titled “Ah Fraid Karl”.
None of this really harmed Hudson-Phillips’ stature, however. When Dr Williams in 1973 declared he was quitting politics, the 40-year-old attorney presented himself as the next leader for the People’s National Movement, getting 224 out of 250 party groups to support his candidacy. After Dr Williams changed his mind about stepping down, Hudson-Phillips resigned from the Cabinet and, seven years later, formed the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR). Under his leadership, the ONR was able to garner 22 per cent of the national vote in the 1981 general election, although none of its candidates won a seat. But the ONR was the precursor to the National Alliance for Reconstruction coalition which swept the PNM out of office after 30 years.
The death of Karl Hudson-Phillips therefore marks more than the passing of a first-class legal mind and a significant political personality. He was also a mover and shaper of the nation’s history, and will be remembered as such.