A YEAR AT THE BAR
by Moses V. Nagamootoo - Posted October 25th. 2003
It is a year this month since I was admitted to the Bar. I still remember being excited by a sense of mission as I was introduced Dr. Fenton Ramsahoye, S.C. before Chief Justice Carl Singh.
It was a year of learning how the justice system works, and about clients and lawyers alike. I have learned that judges and magistrates are too few and their cases far too many; that in our courts justice is both slow and often elusive. In most situations it is often better for a lawyer to walk away with only a compromise. I also learned that there are many clients with big money-bags who easily pay to defend their special interests, or buy legal cover for acts of skullduggery. Many others see justice as being unaccessible when they cannot afford hefty lawyers' fees.
Most of all, I have learned that an honest lawyer's work is not easy. Being a product of the working people, I would humour myself that I was a glorified canecutter every time I took my proverbial bowl of rice to office, fully equipped for a hard day's work. From interviewing the client to that of arguing the case, the paper work and interlocutory stages are elaborate and time-consuming. I have experienced several sleepless nights trying to figure out the best way to represent a client, the many hours drafting petitions and pleadings, and researching the law and relevant cases. I have been lucky to benefit from Paul and Farida, both being efficient and knowledgeable clerks, who are adept at precedents and filing procedures. My daughter Adela also helped by presenting me with a box of paper napkins to offer tearful clients and comrades who would regularly tell me many a sad story.
Lawyers are an odd mixture. Most are kind, courteous and helpful. However, I have learned not to take the words of some lawyers. Not to be too gentle. Be tough and suspicious. I have seen a few lawyers at work in cahoots with clients who determined to steal people's property. They are around, like a jagged noose around the neck of the justice system.
On court days, I have tried to endure the sweltering heat. There I would be, clothed in suit and tie, and on occasions, a full-length, flowing, black robe or gown over that, and I inside, sweating from head to toe. I have learned to be cynical about how I look in my unnatural layers of clothing, thinking that it was part of the pretence of being a successful (if not expensive-looking) lawyer!
In Bail Court or Chamber Court, I would be there invariably for 9 am for a matter listed as 10, 40 or 60. Not being able to anticipate the pace at which a particular judge would work, I could be waiting for the entire morning, or most of it anyhow, for a single case to be called. I could not help being sympathetic with judges, who would prod through high piles of cases of every conceivable type. It would be an achievement if a judge were to conclude one-half of that pile in an entire season, or years for that matter. So, I had enough time to steer at the soot on the ceiling of the courtrooms. I would see the accumulation of these dark layers as I think the thought of yesterday everyday: why can't we get prisoners on community service to clean these nasty courtrooms? I see the ominous black coatings wreaking havoc in unsuspecting nostrils, invoking many a benigned asthma or allergy.
Besides, most of the courts I have been to are not properly ventilated. Ceiling fans whirred lazily, or only over the heads or at the side of magistrates and judges. In Georgetown, the traffic noise drowns proceedings and, in spite of my own efforts at writing about it, and that of my new associate, Nirmala Sukhu, I have not seen any matching action to curb the nuisance.
At the Court of Appeal, I would be distracted by objects on the northern wall, at the air condition units, all with indecent faces. I found Magistrate's courts to be better kept than what they used to be when I was a journalist on the court beat. They are generally cleaner. Except for the lock-up areas, where the putrid, stale smell of urine is offensive.
Once I went to the Brickdam lock-ups, waiting to interview my client. The stench of excrement was unbearably strong. I placed a handkerchief on my nose during the interview, and was only too pleased when it was over. Nothing has changed, it seemed, from when I was myself incarcerated in those infernal lock-ups almost thirty years ago!
During this first year, in spite of cynical advice that I would soon learn, my greatest difficulty has been to fix or ask for fees. At times I would ask my clients to tell me how much they could afford but generally I would contend with one-half what was considered the going charge. My learned colleague, Khemraj Ramjattan, jokingly warned me against turning his Chambers into a "legal dharamsala"!
While I did a few juicy jobs for generous clients, and I managed to earn a few bucks of my own every week, I got a steady stream of clients who would come to see "Comrade Moses" to do a "lil wuk" for them. They would ask me to write letters for them, mostly to government bureaucrats about acts of injustices and lethargic behaviour or inefficiency of various types. Some clients preferred a "percentage arrangement". A West Berbice woman approached me on an accident related matter in which her driver sustained broken legs. I took my brief, and hurried off to court. As I was in my car, about to drive off, the woman rushed to my window. "You didn't tell us how much you will charge. What about you tekking half if we win de case?" I said to her: "You should never tell any lawyer this! Besides, woman, do I look as if my legs are broken? Whatever money we get, if we settle or win, it is yours. You will then decide how much you can pay your lawyer!" I drove away. A year later, the case is yet to be listed for hearing. I have earned not a single cent on this philanthropic enterprise!
A similar proposal was made in another matter. My position was the same: pay what you can afford, not a fixed percentage of any award. My client is a young farm worker, who was chopped brutally on the head by a drunken gang. He became semi-paralysed. His attackers were arraigned on a charge of attempted murder. At trial, the charge was reduced to wounding - a compromise that earned them a fine. Justice for the victim awaits the hearing and determination of the civil action, whenever that would be.
After a year at the Bar, I have not been seized by any special feeling of being a lawyer. Having been a nationalist politician for 40 years, I felt that I have simply taken my crusade for fair-play to another arena. Here, however, the players show respect for fraternity. Seldom have I experienced the acrimony peculiar to party politics or the heat of political debates. On the contrary, I shared my best moments in the corridors of the court with dissidents of various shades and colleagues from the political opposition.
There were great disappointments for me when I saw lawyers trying to win at all cost. Some of those experiences would remain with me for a lifetime, and I fear that I might never overcome them. But I was touched by the many gestures of lawyers who wanted to help out, to find compromises and work things out, especially in favour of clients in unfortunate circumstances. One case will remain fresh in my mind. In a matter where an almost destitute Mahaicony family was being ejected from a house, I was touched by a young lawyer who, while representing his clients with vigour, showed extraordinary understanding of the plight of the poor. I commended him in the presence of the Judge for that act of tempering his practice with humanity.
In the court circuit information trading is part of the turf. You learn quickly, especially when working on cases of alleged smuggling and tax evasion. While the intention to protect the revenue was commendable, I found in few instances that the methods employed by the high priests at Customs House were mostly high-handed and excessive. I have heard shocking revelations about corrupt officials who, while trying to find a cure for the disease, are themselves accused with aiding and abetting the pervasive practice of revenue-cheating!
During the year, I have had very little time to disengage from serious issues of the day, but I would look forward to the lighter side of court. I tried not to giggle when I was confronted with the biting repartee and acid cynicism of the Chief Justice who, invariably, would assume a correct "no-nonsense" posture. Once, glancing at the glorious red tie of one of my colleagues, His Honour said quietly, "I have difficulty recognizing you Mrů" The lawyer, still on his feet, seemed baffled. So, the CJ repeated, and my friend hastily made a soft landing on his seat.
When another lawyer wore a multi-coloured tie, the CJ inquired from him whether he thought that he was at a carnival. And on yet another occasion, as he studied the patterns of red, blue and yellow on the tie of a leading counsel, His Honour admonished sharply, "It seems that you have just returned from Mexico!" But the mood could change dramatically when, for instance, the mighty man told a lawyer who had crossed the threshold of admissible conduct, "You are a dishonest person!"
On my very first appearance at Divorce Court, I was holding for my associate, whose client was the Petitioner, then testifying in the box. I asked him: "Did your wife leave you?" He replied, "No, Sah." I quickly followed up: "Do you want a divorce?" He said, "No, Sah". I saw a massive question hanging on the lips of the Judge, and it was only then that I realized that the petitioner had a hearing impediment. Deaf almost; so I approached him, voice booming. I repeated the questions and elicited "yes" answers. I had adverted what for me would have been my major maiden court disaster!
But the court is not typical for humour. It is a serious place. Twice when I went pass the hefty gates I had to navigate between bags of stale, smelly fish, and protesting marshals. Twice I ran into agitated protesters who wrongly thought that I was a Benschop prosecutor. "Nagamootoo, Nagamootoo, you gon dead, boy!" a woman shouted at me. I gave her my best smile, and replied, "Thank you, Sweetheart". And I gently walked away.
Most lawyers are not so lucky to navigate through harm's way. They are worried by new tax measures and the hasty manner in which these have been imposed. I believe that many lawyers earn well. They would not mind paying more taxes, especially if it is just a little more. But they are offended that both the guilty and not-guilty ones have been criminalized recently as tax-dodgers, and are being made to pay a penalty.
I was lucky to have spent my first year at the Bar with Khemraj Ramjattan, one of the finest legal minds of this generation of lawyers, and perhaps the most fearless among them. He taught me well during my one-year apprenticeship with him. He showed me glaring examples of bureaucratic lawlessness, and the folly of political cover-ups. In the process, he re-kindled my own passion. And though we differ in style and approach, I admire him for his youthful impetuosity and sanguinary zeal that injustice from any quarter should be engaged and destroyed.
After one year, I have won no big cases. Neither have I made a great name for myself as a lawyer. But this I can say with certainty: while I made a living, I have tried each day to use my legal training for just causes - to help the disadvantaged, and to fight the wicked. "
V. Nagamootoo, a former PPP/C government Minister, is an Attorney in private
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