THE BESTOWING of silk on a very small and select group of lawyers last month has reopened the debate over how members of the legal profession are selected for elevation to the status of senior counsel.
Despite this matter being extensively ventilated in the past, not nearly enough has been done to ensure the system is transparent and ethical.
Advocates of the current system point to an order issued in 1964. The order speaks to lawyers submitting an application to the Attorney General (AG) who then consults the Chief Justice and such other individuals or bodies as the AG “considers necessary” before placing recommendations before the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then advises the Head of State to make appointments.
But, as pointed out this week by president of the Law Association Douglas Mendes SC, there are no established criteria for notice, for the making of applications, or for consultation among stakeholders.
What is the point of speaking to “applications” if nobody knows when to apply or how?
Some would say it is all well and good for people like Mendes, who was himself awarded silk under this flawed process, to protest now after having made it through to the inner bar.
Yet, as any lawyer will tell you, sometimes longstanding precedent is wrong and it can be changed. Until such time, it remains law.
The sad thing is, we have been down this road before. What the experience of the December 30, 2011, appointments taught us is that there is considerable public concern over the fairness of the system. In early 2012, the uproar led Chief Justice Ivor Archie to return the silk bestowed on him, even as the Prime Minister at the time, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, did not relinquish the silk she had given to herself. Are we none the wiser?
Ironically, the United Kingdom has long reformed the process by which it makes this award. The process there involves a nine-member panel, chaired by a layperson. The Cabinet supervises only to ensure fairness. None of this is meant in any way to discredit or question the merit of those who have received silk. But having a flawed system does a disservice to the recipients. As Opposition Leader in 2012, Dr Keith Rowley made a persuasive case for reform. “The process by which people attain these accolades should be transparent,” Rowley told Newsday.
With more appointments reportedly due, given shortages at the bar, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet now have an opportunity to make a meaningful difference.
A good place to start would be the proposal of the late Karl Hudson-Phillips, QC, for the formation of a silk board.