Monday, September 25, 2017

Sackcloth and silk

I could not agree more with Karl Hudson-Phillips' letter published in the Express of January 2, and the Newsday of December 31, 2011. On the specific matter of the recent appointment of senior counsel, there are three salient points.

First, it is deplorable that the Attorney General and the Prime Minister, who are at the heart and pinnacle of the process for the award of "silk'', should confer the award on themselves. The precedent set in this regard, allegedly by ANR Robinson and by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, should have been regarded as bad precedent for being self-serving, and not followed.

Second, Mr Hudson-Phillips is correct that the Prime Minister's argument for expanding the criteria for award of Senior Counsel status to lawyers who have otherwise distinguished themselves in national life (such as, I suppose, becoming Prime Minister) is weak, because the country has a system of national awards that should recognise those who are so deserving.

Third, it is incomprehensible that sitting judges should have been awarded and accepted "silk''. Judges are above the bar. Mr Hudson-Phillips has averred that the tradition and the practice of the legal profession is that judges return the award or certainly do not use it on their elevation to the bench, precisely because they then have a status higher than that of any counsel. Dana Seetahal's argument implicitly condoning this practice simply does not fly, and would imply that every judge should automatically be awarded "silk''.

But this latest is yet another example of a society whose elite is by and large insecure and unresponsible, a topic on which I have written in the June 2011 issue of the T&T Review. There is almost a desperation about attaining status and recognition that leads persons to disregard or rationalise obvious conflicts of interest and to pursue self-serving agendas.

We have seen persons awarded honorary doctorates who then thereafter call themselves and are addressed by the title "Dr'', contrary to accepted practice. We have seen retired junior military officers addressed by their rank, until public pressure forced a change to the correct protocol. We have seen a list of "distinguished alumni'' of the UWI, whose distinction is the list of obvious omissions. Because of the push to induct, many of our halls of fame —sporting and collegiate—are now pouring copious amounts of water into the brandy.

I do not mean to suggest that our society is unique in this regard. Peerages in England have been bought or influenced, and "knighthoods'' have been conferred in places like Antigua on persons of dubious reputation. What it does mean is that small societies need to be even more careful and circumspect, and hold themselves to a higher, not a lower, standard of behaviour in these matters.

The suggestions for reform of the selection process for Senior Counsel that have come from Dana Seetahal and others are sensible in placing emphasis on transparency and on established and accepted criteria. Perhaps cynically, I do not believe that these suggestions will be pursued beyond token tinkering at the margins of the process, since the next set of the undeserving or impatient legal elite who covet silk will certainly prefer the existing process to subsist, at least until they have got theirs.

The problem with all this is that those awardees who are genuinely deserving are caught up and tainted by a process for selection and award which is itself tainted and corrupt. In the circumstances, I would, like Karl Hudson-Phillips, limit my own congratulations to those attorneys (and there are many in this recent cohort) who are, by the acclamation of the profession, genuinely deserving of "silk''. The AG and the PM might be better clothed in sackcloth.