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Friday 13 December 2019
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Commentary

The Pickwick puzzle

"Who’s that red-faced man, who said it was a fine morning, and nodded to our counsel?" whispered Mr Pickwick.

"Mr Serjeant Buzfuz," replied Perker. "He’s opposed to us; he leads on the other side..."

Mr Justice Stareleigh...was a most particularly short man, and so fat, that he seemed all face and waistcoat. He rolled in...bobbed gravely to the Bar, who bobbed gravely to him, put his little legs underneath his table, and his little three-cornered hat upon it; and when Mr Justice Stareleigh had done this, all you could see of him was two queer little eyes, one broad pink face, and somewhere about half of a big and very comical-looking wig. ̶ Extract from the Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

Dickens was on my mind this week. He is of course the famous author of works like A Christmas Carol, immortalised in films and other creative genres.

However, my thoughts of Dickens had more bleak origins. That is because they centred on a profession not painted in a very good light by the celebrated scribe – the law.

Now, I have relied on attorneys for much of my life. As a young journalist, I sought the help of a fearless female advocate over sexual harassment at work. And in our organisation, we have had the good fortune to be served by compassionate attorneys who value our work in communities and demonstrate this by virtue of the fees they charge us.

But the question of law and social justice has concerned me for a long time. Today, I am finally able to articulate my thoughts on this important subject.

The law is defined as “a set of rules for society, designed to protect basic rights and freedoms, and to treat everyone fairly. These rules can be divided into two basic categories: public law and private law. Public law deals with matters that affect society as a whole...Private law...is used primarily to settle private disputes.”

In declining a long-service award from the Law Association, attorney Clive Phelps outlined a position that speaks to the critical role of law in a developing nation.

In his letter he pointed out that the legal profession "has failed miserably in its responsibility to the public to obtain redress for prisoners languishing in the Remand Yard for decades without trial, or to support the administration of justice by pressing for the reform of an out-dated prison system."

This rebuke to the Law Association comes against the backdrop of a public protest against lawyers in front of the Hall of Justice, repeated letters to the editor expressing dissatisfaction with the profession, and the revelation that attorneys in TT are probably amongst the highest-paid in the Caribbean.

Thus, what really is the role of law in society and how can our legal fraternity perform beyond its basic definition?

At a recent forum on ways to better manage our migrant challenges, an attorney made the point that many citizens are not aware of their rights. To her credit, she offers representation and support to migrants at little or no cost.

But as she spoke, it struck me that such an awareness programme should be driven by the legal profession: who better to help nationals through the maze of the law than lawyers themselves?

Artists are another vulnerable group who constantly face the threat of their ideas being stolen. To defend against this, some deliberately establish a reputation for being difficult or, as we would say in TT, being an a--. But globally, there are attorneys who offer free training to young people and work with artists in conflict zones or impoverished communities to create art as alternatives to crime.

There is therefore an opportunity to create an organisation perhaps called Attorneys for Artists to illustrate that the law can empower those who need it the most. Dickens filed a lawsuit against someone who published imitations of two of his novels. He won the case, but ended up paying a great deal in legal costs.

He is reputed to have told one of his friends, “It is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.”

This image of the legal profession popularised by Dickens is powerful, not easily contradicted.

By delving into the social purpose of the law, attorneys in TT have an opportunity to truly stimulate development and maybe even give Dickens a verdict that would finally please him.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.

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