“I, [name], do solemnly and sincerely swear/affirm that I would demean myself in the practice as a Barrister-at-law and Solicitor in the State of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.” This is the oath that is taken before a person is called to the Bar of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In this context, “demean” means to conduct oneself in a proper manner.
While the oath is not a promise of moral perfection, it is an undertaking to adhere to the ethical standards of the profession and ought not to be taken lightly. I daresay, those ethical principles ought to permeate every part of a lawyer’s life, professional, business and personal, otherwise the reputation of the lawyer and the legal profession as a whole are compromised.
Indeed, according to the OECS Bar Association’s Code of Ethics “[a] barrister, solicitor or attorney-at-law (hereinafter “Attorney-at-law”) shall observe the rules of this code, maintain his integrity and the honour and dignity of the legal profession, and encourage other attorneys-at-law to act similarly both in the practice of his profession and in his private life, and shall refrain from conduct which is detrimental to the profession or which may tend to discredit it”.
Irrespective of membership of a bar association at the local, regional or international level, that rule expresses the overarching ethical standard to which all lawyers should adhere. As an officer of the Court and a representative of clients, a lawyer has a responsibility to ensure that justice is upheld and the integrity of the legal system preserved. It is therefore the expectation that every barrister will strive to attain ethical ideals.
It is therefore with disbelief and dismissiveness that I first regarded the stories of colleagues alleged to have been involved in conduct which appears to be, not just brutish but criminal in nature. The story seemed farfetched and, initially, I gave it no credence whatsoever. As the days passed, however, and the Police confirmed that they had received reports of the alleged incident occurring involving colleagues, my response changed from disbelief to astonishment.
The allegations are particularly serious. If there is any truth to them, the conduct, by any standard, is reprehensible and is a stain not only on the character and reputation of the professionals involved but also on the legal fraternity in general. As a member of this, still, noble profession, I cannot remain silent.
I must make it clear that it is not just the alleged conduct that is troubling to me. The absence of any press release by the Police in the immediate aftermath of the subject incident and the apparent disparity between the treatment by the Police of those alleged to have been involved in this incident and others involved in non-violent conduct in this country deeply offend my sense of fairness and justice. Why wasn’t this incident worthy of a timely statement by the Police? What made the non-violent conduct of other citizens, such as Desron Rodriguez and Vynnette Frederick, warrant the use of armed police officers in their cases, while the alleged conduct of those involved in the subject incident did not? These unanswered questions cannot be left unanswered, but must be fully addressed by those at the highest levels of authority. Issuing a belated statement on the incident does not suffice. The public is also entitled to know why one was not issued at the outset and whether enquiries were being carried out in the two-week period immediately following the alleged incident. Without open and transparent responses, confidence in the rule of law in St. Vincent and the Grenadines will be seriously undermined.
And what of the lawyers implicated? They too have their part to play in upholding the rule of law, despite the alleged inglorious events of their immediate past.
Without question, their implication in the alleged acts of violence have compromised public confidence in their integrity and in their ability to carry out the duties of their respective positions. In this regard, they should not wait to be asked to step aside. Their voluntary resignation would be an appropriate response, notwithstanding that the investigation is ongoing, and would go some way in restoring public confidence in those who hold public office and in the office they hold.
If they are eventually vindicated, they can be reinstated to their positions, if not with their integrity intact, at least salvaging some modicum thereof. Voluntary resignation pending the investigation, far from being an act of weakness, will demonstrate moral responsibility and support accountability.
I, like many Vincentians, await the outcome of the investigation that is said to be in progress and any legal proceedings that may ensue against any of the parties alleged to be involved. Pending the investigation, however, comments purporting to justify or excuse alleged criminal conduct are unacceptable and even more so when made by those responsible for maintaining national safety through the enforcement of law and order. Unfortunately, it appears that our society has become so accustomed to this rationalization process, that we are oblivious to the fact that we have entered the slippery slope toward ethical numbness and are now at the stage of being morally disengaged.
Those who hold public office are servants of the State and, as such, are answerable to the public for their actions and their decisions. Where those actions and decisions clash with the law, irrespective of the existence of a viable defence, there must be transparency and accountability. To accept anything less from those who hold public office would be to disregard the rule of law at our peril.
Zhinga Horne Edwards
Barrister-at-law and Solicitor