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An Appreciation of Dame Bernice Lake

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The Caribbean has recently lost one of its outstanding legal minds, Dame Bernice Lake, who was born in Anguilla but lived most of her life in Antigua. Some people here might remember that she delivered our 9th Annual Independence Lecture in 2007. As I explained in introducing her on that occasion, I had on a visit to Anguilla set out to make contact with Dame Bernice. I attended a function at the Governor’s residence and saw a distinguished looking lady sitting in a chair for most of the night.{{more}} I only knew the next day that she was the lady I had been trying to contact. When I extended an invitation to her to visit SVG and present our Independence lecture, she was delighted to do so, indicating to me that SVG was one of her favourite places. She remembered previous visits when she stayed at Young Island and enjoyed what she considered true Vincentian hospitality. Unfortunately she was unable to come in October, the time when these lectures are normally held. That year, however, we held it later in November in order to accommodate her.

I first saw and listened to Dame Bernice at a Conference in Antigua in 2005. She delivered the Feature address and I was immensely impressed. From that time I earmarked her as a possible candidate for our Independence Lecture series. The topic of her address was “Strengthening the Nation: Deepening the Democratic Process.” Because she was such a distinguished legal luminary, I extended invitations to the lawyers of SVG. I was, needless to say, thoroughly disappointed by the turn out of our lawyers at what was a powerful presentation in keeping with the reputation that she already had.

Dame Bernice Lake was a graduate of the University of the West Indies. She had then pursued a degree in History after

which she entered the teaching profession. Her next journey was to the Diplomatic Service of the Federal Government of the then Federation of the West Indies for which she was trained at Oxford University. When the Federation collapsed she began the study of Law at London University, graduating with honours. She was called to the Bar in 1967 after becoming a member of the Honourable Society of Middle Temple Inn of Court. So began what became a distinguished career that led to her elevation to the rank of Queen’s Counsel, the first woman in the Eastern Caribbean to be given that honour.

In October 2007, Dame Bernice was selected as one of the honorary graduates at the graduation ceremony at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies, receiving an Honorary Doctor of Laws in recognition of the tremendous contribution she had made to the legal profession. Her citation was read by Public Orator, Professor Henry Fraser. He said of her: “Chancellor, Dame Bernice is described with a sharp- by her colleagues as a brilliant combination of beauty and brains, mind and indomitable spirit. Her career is distinguished by two major themes: commitment to securing a climate of constitutionalism in her region, and to the protection of human rights and women’s rights. She was chief architect of the Anguilla Constitution in 1975 and a member of the team which framed the Constitution of her sister country, Antigua and Barbuda, in 1981. And she as – a free legal service in the Leewards-spawned a group called Justice Corps a protection of the rights of the people, because she has so often defended those rights of the ordinary and often disenfranchised citizens of these islands.”

Fraser continued, “Chancellor, the name Lake is linked so closely with Anguilla, St.Kitts and Antigua, that while Antigua has often been called Bird Island, the entire archipelago of the northern Antilles might well be called Lakeland, where that part of the Caribbean sea is seen as just a lake and Dame Bernice makes her home on both sides of the larger lake, between Anguilla and Antigua. And so it is no surprise that her legacy in Antigua has just been established in stone, with the opening of her new chambers, a splendid building, replacing a historic building destroyed by fire.”

Dame Bernice had litigated many constitutional issues, among them Freedom of Expression and the citizen’s rights of access to state owned broadcasting stations. She had been involved in a case in Anguilla which along with the Observer case in Antigua, represent two landmark constitutional cases. In recent years, Dame Bernice had provided some interesting comments on the Caribbean Court of Justice.

She did not forget her alma mater, the University of the West Indies, from which she had graduated in 1959. She served on the University Council, and the Pro Vice -Chancellor and Principal of the University of the West Indies Open Campus regarded her as a ‘friend and supporter’ of the Open Campus, volunteering her support to the development of that young campus.

Dame Bernice was indeed a strong Caribbean woman. She was fearless, and as I realised at that Conference in Antigua which I mentioned earlier, was strongly critical of some developing tendencies among the ruling elites in the region, some of these thoughts she also expressed at the lecture she delivered here. We, at the Open Campus, SVG, are saddened by her death but salute her life and the contribution she has made.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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