by Audrey Matura-Shepherd
I remember watching this movie ‘Along came a spider’ starring Morgan Freeman (watch it if you ever get a chance) and one message between he and the kidnapper/detective struck me and I tried to process in many ways what it really meant. The gist of the message was whether “you are what you do or you do what you are”. Some people define themselves according to their profession while others make it clear that their profession does not define them – it is only what they do, not who they are. (yeah – do your own soul-searching here)
I often ponder on this statement especially since I have had the honour of serving in several professional, public and private roles and I often am asked what I do and not who I am. I however, do not wish to be defined by a “profession”. I think that before any profession, when I was secretly formed in my mother’s womb, I was blessed with specific special personality traits and characteristics which define me as a person and that as I was nurtured - either by the nature or by my environment, I became the woman I now today…and I keep growing. Isn’t it amazing how for each, our scale of justice is calibrated differently?
I find this soul searching especially important now that I am identified with the legal fraternity, which is obviously a specialized group of professional representing about … percent of the population. It is a group which collectively has been vilified and criticized and singled out…but the group does not represent me nor my values and while I must admit some attorneys are not the image of any role model for anyone, there are those who are genuinely persons of integrity and do have principles.
Powerful people - Attorneys
One of my favorite saying is that ‘information is power’ and by extension knowledge is powerful. I say this because as I have sought knowledge through experience and education I have found that just knowing better makes a difference. Imagine how it was for me before I studied law – there was just so much I did not know about my own rights and about principles that should govern us and ethics of this noble profession. I was clueless but as I studied during my LL.B. (bachelors in law) and my CLE (Certificate in Legal Education) I realized that there were many injustices perpetuated against me and others. Of course this cannot happen now to me and that is one reason on issues of rights, justice and law I am so vocal.
I realized, sadly that in Belize we do not have many social justice advocates… I Belize the truth is that the legal profession is all about making money. The majority are in it to be extremely wealthy – no just to have enough but to have abundantly in over-flow. Any person who has had to hire the service of an attorney, other than through legal aid can attest to this. I had cases while at the DPP’s office where a person on serious criminal charges are left un-represented because as B.Q. Pitts likes to put it “he has not been sufficiently provoked”.
The first time I heard this I had to inquire and found out it’s a nice way of saying you have not been paid your attorney fee so you cannot represent the prisoner. Imagine, justice is not the paramount concern – paying your counsel is. Now, this does not mean that an attorney should not be paid – what is worrying to me is the greedy and excess in fees that sometimes are the true motives why people are left unrepresented. But also there are too many cases in which clients pay and do not get their money’s worth and complaining to the General Legal Council is no use since I have not seen in my time any attorney disciplined for misappropriating clients money – if this is untrue then show me the record proving otherwise.
Sadly, too often clients see attorneys as larger than life and people to be feared because they have the knowledge of the law on their side and thus chose not to challenge the perceived injustice perpetuated on them by their own attorney. Sad but true!
Attorneys and the foreigners’ money
And you see those same people the big-shot attorneys call “foreign investors” - well truth be told no profession has stood to gain more out of them than the attorneys. It is the attorneys who must advice them about the business climate in relation to the law, sets up companies for them, register trade marks, close contracts for them, brokers property purchase and sales, and file all sorts of documents and even litigate on their behalf. Belizeans don’t be fooled all those big laws firms that go up are built greatly on the monies of the “foreign investor”. As a matter of fact just recently I came across an internet ad, in which the sale of islands and beachfront lots in Belize are being sold and the ad says the name of the local attorney from the mega law-firm that can be contacted to make them know how easy the process is.
I remember as a reporter when the offshore banking potential of Belize was being explored and promoted, at the forefront was Rodwell Williams whom I interviewed so regularly on the matter and who was making a case for us to have offshore banking legislation passed. It did pass eventually. Any attorneys will tell you that the money lies in the corporate practice of law, not representing people in magistrate court or family court… not doing social justice case, nor doing criminal nor constitutional case. Antoinette Moore, who recently was attacked on Wave radio as being a “foreigner” is one of the few attorneys in this country who will do human rights, social justice and indigenous rights cases at rock-bottom prices. There is no big money in that. Attorneys representing the government privately now have also learnt how to make the government cases a good source of income.
Lets not forget that attorneys were also amongst the select few to be able to “legally” manage the economic-citizenship programme which saw many foreigners buy our passport and either used Belize as a transit point to the USA or sought a get-rich quick scheme, especially involving land, and a few were really genuine economic-citizens.
A monopoly over knowledge
I say all of the above and could tell more about the profession, to bring to light some very disturbing points. In the legal profession there seems to be people who have the god- complex and thus believe that they are an anointed few that should set the pace for all happenings in this country, but most importantly for how we must protect the profession and the wealth it is suppose to bring.
It is one thing when attorneys chose not to do a case because it does not benefit them sufficiently financially, and its another when they feel and act on the belief that they should have a monopoly on information, knowledge and power. Recently at a bar association meeting a discussion on getting independent legal opinion on the Ninth Amendment came up and I must say I was shocked at the response.
Let me give the back-drop to this all from my perched where I observed. I have been very vocal in giving my professional opinion on the Ninth Amendment and stand by this. But in the same vein I realize that lots of attorneys in and out of government either for salary, position or power have really politicize the matter. The discussion has turned to a debate, that morphed into political rallies and even a show of who is in-charge…what a shame! Its not longer about the truth and what is best for Belize!
Truth be told, on the political divide both have slung mud and muddy the issue and the so-called consultations have absolutely no validity because of the paying off of party supporters and hecklers to distract from the issue. A minute few have steered the course to try and keep the dialogue out of the gutter, but it suits too many to keep it there and keep the people fooled and in the gutter…after all it seems that true knowledge, information and power is the monopoly of a few!
Even the Bar Association has been attacked and personal assaults on people’s name and character have been planned and executed by the Government through its official organs and affiliated party organs – that is an open secret! So in light of that myself and a few others have thrown out the idea that what we need to do is bring, non-partisan, professional, professors of law to present on the matter from a neutral, non-political and strictly professional perspective. These person not having any dog in the dog-fight could not be attacked and would command a much needed level of respect so we can bring back the discussion to the issue and with much needed civility. As a matter of fact these professors’ credibility and name in the legal/professional circle is so sacred they would not risk that for anything – especially not to be bad-mouthed in Belize – otherwise they would sue for any defamation.
Silence – don’t teach the people!
So the Bar Association being one to partner with other institutions put a motion on the table and asked for a vote of its membership to determine if we should pay along with other entities for the services of an independent professional with no baggage to prepare a legal opinion on the 9th Amendment. I would have expected a resounding yes from ALL attorneys because this would mean no partisanship and once and for all we would hear from eminent jurists from whose text books we either studied or quote in court.
Surprise, surprise…while the majority voted yes (33) the minority (12) who voted resounding NO were all from the Attorney General Ministry including the Attorney General B.Q. Pitts himself (One attorney abstained). It was as if they either voted that way or lost their job or honestly believe that the Belizean people just do not have the right to know about the impact of the Ninth Amendment from an independent source. A few who are not hired by the government but who have appointments through the government either in the house, senate or some commission of course voted no as well.
But my point here is not to take away from my learned colleagues their freedom of conscience and right to vote as they please – but rather to question how as learned persons in the law we can sit back and calculatingly deny the non-lawyer people of this nation the opportunity to hear from independent, non-political others? But, don’t get me wrong – these are not just ANY “others” – rather these are others that are clearly trained in this field and have made a career of studying and working in the field of Constitutional Law. Others who have no reason to lie to us, others who are well respected regionally and internationally, others who will not get in the gutter! Others whose views and work we can trust in this time of excessive noise and nonsense designed to keep my people down!.
Are these attorneys really of the belief that the masses should not know? Is this like the days of the church when the followers were not allowed to read the Bible and they had to accept what the clergymen told them was in the Bible? …of course until along came Martin Luther and unshackled the people by sharing his knowledge. I believe my knowledge is nothing until I share it with people on a whole!
From my end I want these non-partisan professors of law who have decades of experience, have studied and written books on constitutional law as their credentials, to come in so our people can have access to the fountain of knowledge from a non-infected source. Our people don’t even have to accept and believe these learned professors – I just want to at least carry my people to the water and let them decide if to drink or not to drink. My task is not to force them to drink but t provide them with the choice of water to drink…
But when my own esteemed colleagues vote against this – it hurts my heart and saddens me because I realize that too many of us in the legal profession know the level of power wielded by the knowledge obtained while in training. But are we so mean and self-centered and obviously fear that if our people access information and knowledge - they will become too empowered and we can no longer fool them. To deny access to this information is to shout “silence in the court” – so that nothing can ever be said…to be heard … to be learned … to be empowered! Sad, very sad, disturbingly sad indeed! And to think that it is our tax-payers money that paid fully or partially many of our attorney’s education …hmmmmmmmmm!