Of attempts to centre the interests of “the people” at Monday’s ceremonial opening of the 2019/2020 law term, Prof Rose-Marie Belle Antoine’s focus on the high cost of justice is likely to resonate loudest.
At the very end of the justice system, particularly its criminal justice component, reside those multitudes of unprivileged and under-served citizens who know only too well the truth of the professor’s analysis that lawyers’ fees are directly related to citizens’ participation in the system that ultimately adjudicates their futures.
Among the more socially aware and human rights focused deans at The UWI in St Augustine, Prof Antoine would know of what she speaks. “As a Caribbean woman,” she declared at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, “I am conscious that they [lawyers’ fees in Trinidad and Tobago] are among the highest, if not the highest, in the Caribbean.” In so saying, Prof Antoine has brought to the national table of contents a topic sure to invite further commentary, scrutiny and numerous stories from those who find themselves in need of professional legal services.
Prof Antoine also sought to guide the conversation towards the system of a fused profession, understood to mean dismissal of the traditional distinction between solicitors and barristers. Indeed, that division has been described as outdated and irrelevant in many jurisdictions that have undone it. That division, Prof Antoine suggests, may account for the high legal fees charged by lawyers who factor in the cost of instructing attorneys.
To those lawyers who feel they deserve the high fees they currently earn, she bluntly pointed out that their training came at a social cost to the country that sacrificed taxpayers’ dollars, paid in by all, to provide the educational opportunities for those who eventually qualify and are called to the bar. “Should the spoils be for us alone?” she asked, and tabled a recommendation of a system of contingency fees, that is, fees that become payable only after a matter has been successfully disposed by the attorney-at-law.
This is likely to be an uncomfortable topic for many lawyers who have become accustomed to the current fee structure and for whom the profession might have appealed precisely because of its potential for healthy financial rewards. If nothing else, a point about the social responsibility of lawyers, particularly at this time when wanton criminality of the blue and white collar varieties deposit many citizens at lawyers’ doors, has been made.
The conversation will continue, and in it, the Law Association will have a key role and conceivably several alternatives. In that conversation, the dominant consideration must be the heart of the matter, expressed by Prof Antoine, as citizens’ right to be heard, to participate and to obtain remedies in the judicial system. Whatever obstructs those rights must be remedied in the interest of all.