By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(Plain Talk March 29, 2019)
The recent decision by the Privy Council to deny Joseph Ewart Layne the right to practice law in Grenada has evoke a diverse set of emotions, some raw, others calculated and still others convenient. Ewart Layne was one of the members of the New Jewel Movement leadership convicted for the murder of Maurice Bishop and others on Oct. 19, 1983.
It has been 33 years since the sentence of death was delivered. Many of the persons commenting could be excused if no mention was made of the fact that that the trial was organised, orchestrated and paid for by the American invading force, that statements obtained through torture and coercion were admitted to evidence as freely given. The Privy Council decision noted that “it has been said, not just by Mr. Layne but also by independent observers, that there were serious irregularities in his original trial”. But that’s an aside because the conviction was not a live issue before the council.
Raw emotions are understandable because a beacon went out across the Caribbean with the execution of PM Bishop, leader of the People’s Revolutionary Government and the subsequent American invasion. However, the calculated and convenient commentaries are most galling.
Firstly, many of those celebrating the Privy Council’s verdict are the same ones who are vociferously opposed to a Caribbean Court as our highest judicial body. Few of those celebrating the verdict have stopped to acknowledge that the Privy Council broke no new legal ground in this case. It simply upheld a decision of the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal.
If the Privy Council upheld the Court of Appeal more often than it overturns it, and it does, it stands to reason that the decisions of our Court of Appeal are solid and should be respected. It cannot be that we cherry pick and laud the decisions we favour and damn those we don’t like. The Privy Council’s decision tells us that our Court is competent and professional and will serve us well.
The Privy Council decision is a good one, but could have and should have gone the other way. The Council concluded
“The fact that Mr. Layne is now a man of good standing in the community is certainly a necessary requirement for the good character condition for admission to the Bar of Grenada to be satisfied, but it is not in itself enough. Public confidence in the profession had also to be considered. The judge’s assessment was that there was sufficient risk that it would be damaged by acceding to Mr. Layne’s application and so that facet of the good character condition was not met.”
Here is a man who was convicted of serious offenses more than three decades ago. He was 25 years at the time. He spent 26 calendar or 40 prison years in jail. During this period he used his time to acquire a first and then a graduate degree in law, an accounting degree and then the professional ACCA. On his release in 2009, Layne went to the Hugh Wooding Law School and obtained the Legal Education Certificate (LEC) as well as a graduate certificate in legislative drafting. All of these obtained with distinction. All of his education was at his expense and at no cost to the tax papers of Grenada.
The issue for the court in Grenada was whether Layne had a sufficiently good character and whether his admission to practice posed a risk that public confidence in the profession will be damaged. The issue that weighed heavily on the mind of the judge was the conviction. Justice Price Findlay suggested that had Layne committed the offences while he was a practicing attorney he would have certainly been disbarred. Therefore, she seems to based her good character decision on the fact that the conviction would of necessity bar Layne from being admitted to the bar. Lord Sumption also suggested that convictions of the nature in this case almost definitively disbar someone from being admitted.
Lord Justice Kerr, the lone dissenter, radically disagreed with this line of thinking. He wanted the case sent back to the Grenada High Court for rehearing of the issue of “good character and the risk posed by the conviction to public confidence in the profession”. He believed that Justice Price Findlay and the Court of Appeal wrongly applied the good character test. Justice Kerr maintained that the test to be applied was not whether someone was convicted for serious crimes but whether a good character was build up and established subsequent to the conviction especially during the years as a prisoner and the stellar academic achievement of Layne.
The principles of sentencing are punishment, deterrent, retribution and rehabilitation. Layne was imprisoned for 26 years. Citizens could glean from Layne’s case that if you committed a crime you will have to do the time. Society got to demonstrate its retributive powers and authority. Layne is fully rehabilitated. He lived a stellar life as a prisoner and used the time to educate himself. For the last 10 years as since his release, he remained a law abiding citizen. All three courts commended him on his performance to date.
What would Jesus say? On its face, our society is very religious. We proclaim firm and abiding belief in the Holy Bible and the teachings of Christ. Given the chance to describe the singular significant of Jesus Christ most of us will point to forgiveness, redemption and second chance.
Would Jesus demand continued retribution or would he use Layne in the same way the redeemed Saul morphed into Paul and became so central to the New Testament? What about redemptive justice? Layne has clearly demonstrated that mistakes made early in life are not a predictor who you become. He stoically stands as the perfect exhibit of someone who has dramatically turned his life around.
Courts are big on the demonstration of remorse by those found guilty. Layne’s profound reflections and remorse are palpable. He has spoken painfully and powerfully about his errors of judgement that caused him to lose most of his adult life to prison. In matters like these I have no doubt as to where Jesus would stand. Layne is the role model to place on the pedestal. Instead our judicial system refused to accord him the stage on which to magnify his example through the practice of law. Grenadian society is the clear loser for this decision.
**Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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