The House of Assembly has long been distinguished by large populations of lawyers. At present, eight of the 30 parliamentarians in the Lower Chamber are lawyers, three of them Senior Counsels, the erstwhile QCs. It stands to reason, some might say, that the lawgivers of our land ought rightly to be men and women schooled in the law.
With that reason goes the presumption that such intimate knowledge of, and, hopefully, love, for the law makes for some good laws of the land.
We propose, however, to posit a varying view. It is precisely because of the preponderance of legal eagles in our houses of Parliament that far too little change is effected by lawyers, particularly in the policing of other lawyers and in making sure that the operations of the law are truly just, fair and equitable.
It is reasonable to question whether this, like any other interest group, would be keen to vote against the culture that spawned it – as rice merchants would be slow to pass taxes on rice imports or as the sugar barons fought tooth and nail against better wages and living conditions for the workers they once owned as slaves.
Justice is not only in the realm of criminal law; it must also be found in the application of basic civil, family and estate procedures. We draw particular attention to the transfer and conveyancing of land – the means by which families pass land ownership from one generation to another.
Successive Parliaments of Barbados have held firm and fast to archaic laws of inheritance. The system governing land ownership would not be unfamiliar to our forebears with the singular exception of the landmark Freehold Tenantries Purchase Act of 1980 which we accept has transformed the face of land ownership in this country from a feudal, vassal state to more democratised ownership.
But now, even that very law is being used to dispossess some of those families who, by dint of blood, sweat and tears, earned their piece of the rock from “Massa”.
The same tenantries land has been used by both the urban and rural development commissions to acquire land that was meant to pass from seed to seed.
Rather than be a force against abuse, these government agencies have been engaged in a very silent but very real land grab of their own – across political administrations – in an attempt to dish out what was never theirs in return for votes that they had never before held.
Few Barbadians will know until it is too late that under our laws the process of transfer of title from ancestor to descendant dies when the applicant, usually aged, dies..
While this anomaly has been resolved in many other jurisdictions, particularly in the Eastern Caribbean, this Victorian if not Draconian aspect of our laws remains on the statute books. The process itself remains as slow as it is cumbersome. The system for retrieving information to prove patrimony and patriarchy matriarchy has not risen to the enormous challenge of a fast-changing society, physical landscape and technology.
It is time that those lawyers who sit in judgement of themselves think less of their political and economic fortunes and more about extending the creation of wealth from generation to generation.
The process of acquiring small tracts of land that may have been intended to empower impoverished families has gone haywire and has done nothing to stem the burgeoning levels of squatting across the country.
It is now time for our lawmakers to act in defence of, and in the interests of, the people who elected them.
This is but one area of law reform on which lawmakers drag their feet. But for the present, it is one that cries out for attention if Barbadians are to continue their tradition of wanting a piece of the rock and pass on this ownership to their children and grandchildren.
A simpler, more effective way of doing this must be created. This is within the grasp of the lawyers in the House.
The means by which rich realtors grab hold of Granny’s plots of land through a land tax loophole that ought to be closed. The archiving of birth and baptismal records is not merely to fund to propel some new interest in genealogy; it is also to verify and codify the means by which heirs can prove their lineage.
Make no mistake; the system of land tenure in Barbados, insofar as it relates to the application of the law, is broken. It is time for all our lawmakers to get off their laurels and do something too many of them are averse to: reform the laws.