Considering her achievements, most people may take the view that Court of Appeal judge, Madam Justice Sandra Mason, has come a long way from her humble beginnings in the rural St Philip villages of East Point and Bayfield.
However, it is this disciplined upbringing which still influences much of the 67-year-old’s thinking and behaviour. To this day, she is a stickler for respecting those in authority and practicing good manners, no matter one’s age.
Growing up in East Point with her parents and eight siblings has fond memories for her. However, while still young, she moved in with her aunt and grandmother in nearby Bayfield, at her aunt’s request.
The change of family environment meant that she was then the only child in the household. To fill the void caused by not having her siblings or other children around, she embraced the company of books. She also participated in lessons which her aunt taught other children from the neighbourhood and especially enjoyed listening to Rediffusion, a very popular cable radio service back then that was the forerunner of Voice of Barbados.
The Rediffusion service has long gone out of existence but one of the unique radio sets is still displayed in Justice Mason’s home as a keepsake. In the absence of television, “you learnt cricket, football, Shakespeare plays, classical music.
You learnt everything on that Rediffusion,” Justice Mason recounted in a Barbados TODAY interview. “I happened upon law in a strange way,” she explained, pointing to the effect of listening to a radio drama series on Rediffusion that was entitled Portia Faces Life that was broadcast on weekday mornings. The central character — a lawyer who won all her cases — became the catalyst for Justice Mason’s decision to become a lawyer.
Prior to making that life-changing career decision, her childhood dream was to become a bus conductress, based solely on how a very caring conductress treated all the children who travelled on the school bus.
“She was a jolly soul,” Justice Mason said, recalling that she shared her ‘plans’ with her mother who encouraged her to be “the best bus conductress you can be”. At another point also, Justice Mason said she “really wanted to be a teacher”. She actually had a short stint, lasting only for two terms, after the Principal at her school insisted that she taught the syllabus set by the Ministry of Education. She, on the other hand, felt it was far above the level of her students, who showed little interest in it anyhow.
Recognizing this, she opted instead to teach them things they could use throughout life. After being chided for doing so, she and teaching parted ways.
However, she readily admits that if she had not gone into law, she would have been a teacher. By the time she had finished her St. Catherine’s Primary and Queen’s College education, Justice Mason had her mind made up that law would be her career and that she would study in England, since her father had migrated there to work. However, he felt that she might not have been able to handle England as it was then and suggested that she not come.
“Fortunately for me, the Law Faculty (at Cave Hill) opened in 1970,” the judge recalled, and she was among its first students. She completed her studies at the University of the West Indies before going on to the Hugh Wooding Law School in Trinidad. Returning to Barbados, the mother of one son – Matthew – worked with Barclays Bank even after qualifying as a lawyer. However, it was not being able to work in the desired area of banking that frustrated her to the point where she “had an epiphany” and left to enter private practice. Subsequent to making this move, radio again contributed to her making another landmark decision. While driving to work one morning, she heard the programme Opportunity Knocks advertising for a magistrate.
Ignoring the fact that the requirement was for an attorney with at least five years’ experience, “presumptuous I applied” with three years’ and was accepted. The first court reporting also began under her magistracy, Justice Mason said, after a young reporter at the time, Chelston Lovell, thought that what happened in court was worthy of coverage . “People since then have almost become addicted to what happens in court,” she observed. As for the rumours that she ruled in favour of women during that period, the former chief magistrate strongly denied that. Having experienced her father’s faithful support of his nine children, Justice Mason made it clear she felt men should support their children because the mothers did not get them alone.
“I want you to spend $10 a week for me. And we are not giving this child any cornflakes or sausages, not even eggs,” she recalled telling some fathers. It was that exercise which brought many fathers to the realisation that their proposed maintenance was insufficient. On the other hand, Justice Mason confessed her intolerance for mothers denying fathers access to their children or unemployed mothers sending their children to day-care and asking fathers to supply the fees. Altogether, Justice Mason served on the magistrate’s bench from 1978 to 1997. For a few years in between, she held the position of Barbados’ Ambassador to Venezuela. From 1997 until 2005, she was Registrar of the Supreme Court before becoming a High Court judge in neighbouring St. Lucia.
Three years on, she ascended to the Court of Appeal here in 2008. She also spent eight years working for the United Nations where she became Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Lauding the progress women have made within the legal profession, Justice Mason, however, is “dissatisfied with the ratio” and feels “it is unfortunate” that in areas of study and within the workforce, men have not come alongside the women.
“You see the men on the other end of the spectrum…They are the ones who end up before the courts,” she observed. Not being able to positively account for this trend, she surmised that some of it can only be attributed to parenting, although “I know there are lots of young men doing good things.” As for changes she would like to see within the judicial system, the long-serving officer looks forward to the day when magistrates no longer have to record evidence by hand and their title is changed to District judge. She also believes the judiciary is unfairly criticised, saying that “too many people believe that decisions should be made on the spot” as is possible sometimes in summary cases before the magistrates’ courts. “It must be recognised that the judge is an arbiter who has to weigh each side…and then look for the real story. Unfortunately, the judiciary does not have an avenue to come out and defend the criticism which is often levelled at us,” she explained, noting in some other jurisdictions the judiciary has a Public Relations Department.
“There are some times that it might be indefensible and we are at fault, but we can’t be wrong all the time,” Justice Mason remarked. A separation of the administration of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal is another change which Justice Mason would like to see.
This way, the administration of both courts would not weigh too heavily on one person, she said. This accomplished woman who has seen every continent and ‘used to be’ an avid reader, cricket enthusiast, traveller and scrabble player, now relaxes by watching television and reading during her holidays.