CLOSE to 40 attorneys have been barred from practising law in Jamaica over the last 25 years, most of them for misappropriation of clients’ funds, forcing honest lawyers on the back-foot, in a fight to protect the image of a great profession.
The General Legal Council (GLC), which monitors the conduct of the 3,864 registered attorneys islandwide, confirmed that 38 lawyers have been disbarred from practising in Jamaica since 1985.
The number does not include lawyers who have been suspended for specific periods, the most recent being Oswald James who was cited for improper conduct and prevented from practising for one year. James has appealed the GLC’s decision.
The list contains the names of persons who once wielded considerable influence on the profession, but fell from grace in dramatic fashion. Most were disbarred because of the misappropriation of funds of their clients, who would have lodged formal complaints to the legal council after having tried unsuccessfully on countless occasions to get restitution.
Outgoing head of the General Legal Council, and veteran attorney Dr Lloyd Barnett told the Sunday Observer that there was widespread concern within the legal profession regarding the number of cases of disbarred attorneys.
“Some members of the profession are concerned about the increased cases of breaches of law and ethical rules,” the noted constitutional attorney said.
“Of course, an increase (in disciplinary cases) can result from a number of things, one of them being an increase in the number of lawyers practising now, which can lead to greater scrutiny, but definitely as a group we are concerned. On the other hand, can any institution be tainted because of the deficiencies of some?” asked Dr Barnett.
Several attempts at getting a reaction from president of the Jamaican Bar Association Jacqueline Samuels Brown failed, as she did not respond to requests for a comment made through her office. And telephone and e-mail messages left for president of the Advocates Association of Jamaica George Soutar also went unanswered.
However, vice president of the Bar Association and fast-rising attorney Ian Wilkinson defended his chosen profession, while acknowledging the potential damage that law-breakers can do to it.
“The Jamaican Bar Association is understandably quite concerned about the number of persons who have been disciplined, particularly recently. In my respectful view, the offenders have personality flaws and would probably have erred similarly in other professions,” Wilkinson said.
“In my humble opinion, it is bad for even one lawyer to be disbarred. That alone can result in a negative perception of the legal profession. Nonetheless, I do not believe that this is an indictment on the entire legal profession which, regardless of the various criticisms levelled, is still a truly noble profession. These ‘bad apples’ certainly do not spoil the ‘tree of lawyers’ existing in Jamaica, the vast majority of whom are persons of great integrity,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson maintained that the legal profession remained healthy, despite disciplinary action that had been taken against some of his colleagues.
“Having regard to the fact that the register of lawyers boasts of several thousand practitioners, I do not believe that the unfortunate and wayward behaviour of a small minority of lawyers suggests that the legal profession is in a bad way,” he said.
He suggested that the fact that a well-established mechanism was in place, via the Disciplinary Committee of the General Legal Council, to punish these offenders, proved that the legal profession was quite healthy and that the system, albeit slow on occasions, was indeed working.
Other prominent lawyers, including some noted defence lawyers, gave mixed views regarding the effect of the disciplinary actions on their profession.
“Once you have questions of honesty and integrity lingering over lawyers, it taints the profession,” admitted veteran K Churchill Neita. “I have had clients questioning the integrity of lawyers who were accused of misappropriating clients’ funds and some lawyers have even ended up in prison.”
Neita believed that the number of lawyers who had been found guilty was too high.
“It is still very much so. The profession might have grown to include a few thousand lawyers now, but those disbarred represent a very large number, because we are talking people who are sworn to uphold the highest traditions of the Bar,” he argued. “When you have people using clients’ money, money that people worked hard to save and buy things like houses, or left for their retirement and they don’t get it back, that is unacceptable and a violation of the trust instilled in them.”
Another veteran attorney, Heron Dale, admitted there were several cases of misconduct, but countered that the legal profession remained largely clean.
“A few bad apples do not make the whole basket bad,” said Dale, a former president of the Jamaica Football Federation.
“Anybody who breaks the laws of the profession should be frowned on,” he said. “One of the problems is that the more people you find in the legal profession, the more cases of misconduct may emerge. The profession is monitoring itself and the General Legal Council is doing a good job to ensure that lawyers conduct themselves professionally.”
Attorney and former Senator Delano Franklyn of the law firm Wilson Franklyn Barnes was firm in his view that his colleagues who stepped out of line should be firmly dealt with.
“The disbarring of a lawyer for the misappropriation of funds is a very serious matter. Lawyers are trained to provide good quality legal representation and guidance to their clients, not steal from them, and when this happens it reflects badly on all lawyers and the entire legal profession,” Franklyn said.
“However, it is important to point out that the 38 lawyers disbarred since the 1980s to date, represents a minority of the under 4,000 lawyers now on the roll in Jamaica, and secondly, that it is the legal profession, through the General Legal Council, which took the decision to remove these lawyers from the roll.
“What is happening in the legal profession, however, reflects the growing level of corruption in the society, in virtually all areas of national life.
“The battle against corruption must be waged by all well-thinking persons in the society, if not, it will corrode all of our professions and institutions and bring our society into further disrepute. The disbarring of corrupt lawyers is a step in the right direction, and we also need to continue to do more house cleaning in other areas of the society as well,” Franklyn said.