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Reflections on a noble calling – Part I

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29.MAR.11

Editor, Here is a statistic you may not be aware of: Save for India and Pakistan, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (St.V&G) has become one of a few countries with more lawyers and barristers per square mile than any other of the countries once part of the British Empire. Someone said to me recently, “if you stand in the middle of Kingstown and randomly throw a stone it is impossible not to strike a lawyer or a barrister”. That’s how numerous they are.{{more}} (Note: I am going to use the term “attorney” at times to denote both lawyer and barrister). The question we should then ask: Why is this so, in a country that exports mainly bananas, has no big corporate business interests, except for a number of family-owned businesses and two or three regional branch banks? There are many answers to this question. One of the little-known secrets is that the constant flow of lawyers and barristers keep lecturers and professors at all the campuses of the University of the West Indies (UWI) with law departments gainfully employed by the governments that support the University financially. Because of this, there is no limit to the inflow and outflow from the school. So the tap on the pipeline is always open. Secondly, it is one of the most sought after professions in the English-speaking Caribbean (although corruption in the political system is rife, accountancy is still miles behind), that could lead to a political life, in essence, a taxpayer-funded one, masquerading as patriotism, for those who did not make it in the sciences. Think of how many politicians and their acolytes with law degrees are now in office! The Caribbean is beginning to appear as though the law degree is necessary to become a politician.

There has been an overabundance, not only here, but also in the wider Caribbean. An event that comes to mind about the creation of work for this overabundant supply is the current Commission of Inquiry now playing out in Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, concerning the extradition to the US of the drug-dealer Mr. Christopher Coke. Save for one or two, each witness, including both the PNP and the JLP party representatives to be called up, is represented by a lawyer or a barrister along with a junior assistant from both political parties. This inquiry is estimated to cost upwards of $30 M (Jam.) of taxpayers’ money-money capable of building and equipping at least five schools in rural Jamaica, and guess who have observer status at the inquiry? Yes, you guessed it, students from the law faculty from the Mona campus. In the end, nobody will go on trial, pay a fine, or go to jail for aiding and abetting Mr. Coke, a notorious gang leader who has oiled the political machinery with ‘dirty’ money for years.

For many years there has been the myth, that if one is a lawyer or barrister then one is a smarty-pants know-it- all. This is a myth sometimes stoked by members of the profession. They have conned the entire world with this myth about being smart-alecky, which the local public has bought into hook, line and sinker, as they say. Obviously there are other reasons such as the imagery that goes with its status: being behind a desk or wearing the customary robe and powdered wig to appear in court. An example that comes to mind of false imagery: after midnight on week nights and on Sundays, both day and night, there is a well-known local member of this fraternity, who parks his car outside his office, apparently working around the clock. Onlookers can only guess whether this worthwhile soul is doing serious legal work. There is a joke going around town that there is strong evidence that there is also a bed in his office. I rest my case (amen to that).

But are they all that they are supposedly cracked up to be? In settling the affairs of my father’s estate, here are three examples of lawyerly incompetence: (1) The estate of R.E. Baynes sold a former residence at Edinboro to a buyer and received the cheque from the mortgagors of the buyer. After cashing the cheque, I got a call on behalf of the estate, about a month after, from the buyer’s attorney for the family to sign the documents. Those documents should have been signed at the handing over of the cheque. Luckily, I did not abscond back to the US with the money. (2) The estate sold a lot size of about twelve thousand square feet of land from a development which the estate owned, to a buyer in the UK; the deed was drawn up by a local attorney, then sent for his client’s signature in the UK. Before signing the document, the client had his attorney in Britain review the document. His UK attorney discovered that the lot he had chosen was not the lot appearing on the document. He promptly fired the local attorney, who had already received a retainer. If that attorney were practising outside the region say in the UK or the US, he could easily have been sued for incompetence, even dishonesty, and possibly disbarred, if the retainer had not been returned. (3) The estate sold another lot to a buyer whose attorney’s title search revealed no evidence that the lot was hypothecated, the attorney for the bank from whom the buyer was receiving the loan found otherwise. The attorney for that client is now a Queen’s Counsel (QC). Of course, one cannot indict them all. There are always competent ones to be found.

I have learnt never to engage a local attorney before reviewing his background and experience. I will advise any aggrieved taxpayer against consulting a local attorney if her claim requires an accounting explanation, unless that attorney has a background in the subject. The attorney may understand the technical language of the law, but is not likely to have an answer, if the question involves sifting through the client’s financial statements. More than likely, he (she) would not have a clue, if the question involved some accounting. Apart from one or two practitioners of the law, the attorney is unlikely to know the difference between a ‘nominal account’ and a ‘real account’, ‘depreciation’ or ‘depletion’, ‘contingency liabilities’ or a ‘Reserve-for Sinking Fund’, ‘Book-to-Market’ or markdown, ‘the pooling method’ or purchase method etc, etc. Attorneys here are not taught to think outside of the box. Major tax cases that have occurred in the local courts invariably involve retaining off-shore attorneys from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, sometimes Barbados, more than likely trained in the UK and, in most cases I know of, have won for their client, because the government’s case has always tended to be weak.

continued on Friday, April 1

Rudolph O Baynes Rutherford, NJ 07070 email: rudybjr@comcast.net

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