When it comes to lawyers relative to population size, Barbados probably has one of the highest ratios in the entire Caribbean Community (CARICOM) region. Every year, more and more are graduating from the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the two affiliated law schools – Hugh Wooding in Trinidad and Norman Manley in Jamaica – to begin careers in a market which some contend is already saturated.
Because of the freedom of movement provisions of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME), new entrants to the legal profession are no longer only Barbadian, as was mostly the case up to about a decade ago, but also other CARICOM nationals who now have the right, under CSME, to live and work in Barbados where a more developed market seems to offer more lucrative opportunities.
Last Friday, the latest batch of 45 new attorneys – mostly women – was admitted to practise at the local Bar during a ceremony at the Supreme Court presided over by Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson. The 45 will add to the membership of the Barbados Bar Association that, according to its website, recently stood at around 520, presumably paid-up, since at least one prominent attorney, who has reportedly refused to pay its dues, is currently not listed on the association’s online database.
The admission of these new attorneys is almost certain to rekindle the off-and-on debate over whether there is really a need for so many lawyers in Barbados at a time when some argue the focus should really be on developing other critical skills to solve a range of pressing national problems. The new lawyers are also making their debut at a time when public confidence in the legal fraternity is probably at its lowest level.
Against a backdrop of numerous complaints about the conduct of some lawyers, and a few highly publicized cases involving alleged misappropriation of client funds, the average Barbadian, if asked now to say how they feel about attorneys, would probably respond by describing them as crooked. It is the unfortunate fall-out from the case of a few bad apples spoiling the image of the whole bunch.
Back track to about 25 years ago. Lawyers back then were generally looked up to and highly respected for their erudition, which was expressed in terms such as “legal luminary”. Indeed, to be called to the bar and then go on to develop a successful practice was widely seen as reaching the pinnacle of professional success. Legendary courtroom battles resulting in victories for clients through their lawyers’ spellbinding, persuasive oratory, was the subject of many a rum shop discussion.
The ugly image of lawyers today did not escape Sir Marston’s attention last Friday. He cautioned the profession’s newest members: “One dishonest lawyer often leads to the wholesale castigation of the entire profession. Whether you like it or not, you are your brother’s or sister’s keeper, and any improvident acts by you will tarnish not only your reputation but that of the whole profession.”
Speaking to an audience that included Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, Supreme Court judges, members of the legal fraternity and relatives and friends of the new attorneys, the Chief Justice went on: “And so, my request is that you should be aware of the serious consequences, which will attend any ethical missteps. Ensure that you are perceived as a consummate professional, and that good reputation will follow you.”
Sir Marston also pointed to a much-criticized backlog of criminal cases in the court system which he blamed partly on not enough lawyers practising criminal law. While such a practice provides opportunities for defence counsel to gain a lot of public exposure through media reports of court cases, and also good name recognition, the financial rewards are generally considered to be not as lucrative as, say, corporate law. Urging the new lawyers to seriously consider focusing on criminal law, Sir Marston said such a choice would contribute to clearing the current backlog in the court system.
We believe that lawyers, who were mostly educated at full public expense until two years ago, should see it as a moral duty to give back to the society through more pro bono work. For example, they should fight cases, using the Constitution, to remove existing encumbrances on the rights and freedoms of individuals. They should go before the courts to secure rulings on vexing issues which may have been overlooked years ago but which are fully conscious of today.
We wish the new attorneys well as they embark on building what hopefully will be exciting and fulfilling careers. At the same time, though, we must caution them that the prying eyes of a suspicious Barbadian public will be closely following their every move. They should, therefore, take nothing for granted.