BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large
Sunday, June 12, 2011
HE was named after one of Jamaica's most eminent lawyers of all time and is the first head of the local Bar Association to emerge from the inner city.
For Ian Godfrey Wilkinson, whom his mother named after the late Queen's Counsel Ian Ramsay, becoming president of the Jamaican Bar Association, marks one of the crowning achievements of his 22-year career as a practising attorney-at-law.
Wilkinson, 46, assumed the job of 13th president of the Jamaican Bar Association on March 19, with a mandate to take the legal profession to a higher platform. Already, he has set things in motion to improve conditions for the lawyers that his organization represents.
He was born at Smith Lane in Central Kingston and his early years as a boy growing up on nearby Text Lane were not easy. But the experience toughened him.
"The ghetto is a state of mind. My becoming president of the Bar Association is in tribute to Text Lane. I felt that I had a duty to show these community children that you can be born in the so-called ghetto, born in deplorable physical circumstances, but then you can be a gem," Wilkinson said.
"Life was tough growing up in the ghetto, but if I had the chance to live my life over again, I would not want to be born in Beverly Hills. The experience has served me well.
"You have no control over where you were born, so you can't carry that burden and make it a problem. You have to make a difference," he added.
Having left Calabar All-Age school, Wilkinson's next stop on the journey to greatness was Kingston College, where his older brother -- now University of the West Indies Consultant Professor of Pathology Dr Carlos Escoffery -- had set the academic pace by getting 10 GCE 'O' Level distinctions in the early 1970s and becoming arguably the brightest boy at the school in his era.
Shortly after, another brilliant son of the late St Elizabeth-born Inez Ricketts was to also make his mark, blazing a fine academic trail, which included his successful participation in the Schools' Challenge Quiz.
Now, Wilkinson, a lawyer with a reputation for impeccable honesty and strength of character, is focused on straightening out the several kinks that exist in the legal profession that the Jamaican Bar Association has the capacity to address.
"I have paid my dues, learnt the ropes and served on many committees of the Bar Association," the father of three told the Sunday Observer.
Wilkinson has already established that he has huge shoes to fill, as he occupies a seat that previously accommodated sharp legal minds like Lt Col Hurley Whitehorne, KC Burke, Frank Phipps, Douglas Brandon, Dennis Daly, Dr Lloyd Barnett, Dennis Morrison, Derek Jones, Hillary Phillips, Arlene Harrison-Henry, John Leiba and Jacqueline Samuels-Brown.
Yet, though the challenges are many, he believes that his new team can deliver the goods. The new council has veteran lawyer Valerie Neita-Robertson as its first vice-president, along with immediate past president Samuels-Brown, secretary Althea Brown, assistant-secretary Maurice Manning, treasurer Donovan Walker and assistant treasurer Sherry- Ann McGregor.
Other council members are Jacqueline Cummings, Nancy Anderson, Janet Morrison, Pamella Benka Coker, Norma Linton, Capt Paul Beswick, Linda Wright, Katherine Francis, Gavin Goffe, Patrick Bailey, Carol Vassell, Michele Champagnie, Sandra Minott-Phillips, Leslie Campbell and John Leiba.
"One of the things that I've tried to get done is reshape how the bar office operates. I am presently creating a plaque with all the former presidents and the years they served," Wilkinson said.
"My main emphasis though, is the welfare of the members of the Bar. Obviously I want to see justice done, I want the legal profession to improve, I want to avoid seeing all these negative reports about lawyers in the press, I want the independence of the judges to be strong, I want the independent commissioner to succeed, I want the DPP's office to run in a more efficient manner, I want the legal justice system to improve.
"At the Supreme Court for example, the robing room has to be refurbished. Lawyers must find a place to change. When you put on your robe to go into the Supreme Court, you are not supposed to do it in the corridors of the court or outside the court, you are supposed to do it in a robing room. The robing room at the Supreme Court is in an appalling state. The lawyers need to congregate in a more pleasant environment. I want to overhaul the robing room.
"We are also going to try and get reduced motor vehicle premiums for lawyers. We are going to look into setting up a credit union, which provides special services to lawyers.
Other plans include reshaping the membership of the Association, especially targeting lawyers from the public Bar, people from the attorney general's department and the DPP's office in a bid to get them more involved in the profession, added Wilkinson.
"A lot of these people don't join the Bar, but they are quite often going to become part of the private Bar. Many of them don't stay at the DPP's office forever, and you can see a man prosecuting one week and the next week you see him as a defence counsel. Everybody who graduates as a lawyer is entitled to become a member of the Bar Association, but it's not automatic... you have to apply for membership, because we don't want to force it on people. You have many lawyers who do not believe in mandatory association, they say it is unconstitutional and they will take you to court," Wilkinson said.
Bringing all the affiliate legal groups under one umbrella is also on Wilkinson's 'to-do' list.
"You have regional associations like Cornwall Bar, Southern Bar, Northern Bar and the Advocates Association, those are four other groups. I want to do things which get those people more involved, because we are all targeting the same things and we have the same interests. Sometimes you find that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, but at the end of the day, the Bar Association is the legally recognised entity for the umbrella group of lawyers in the entire country."
Wilkinson is also leading the charge to set up a Supreme Court that will serve the people of western Jamaica. This, he believes, will go a far way in addressing justice for the people of that region.
"One of the things that I would like to have is a Supreme Court established in Montego Bay, St James. For years the powers that be have spoken about it but they have done absolutely nothing and I think it's a shame. "Jamaica is not about Kingston and St Andrew, even though we tend to behave that way. Montego Bay is such an influential part of Jamaica's socio-economic, political culture. How can you not have a Supreme Court there? People with cases in Montego Bay have to travel to Kingston. It is crazy.
"If the leadership can't see that and do something about it, that's sad.
"Lawyers do cases in Montego Bay when judges go on circuit, they travel to St James. You shouldn't have to wait until judges travel to St James on circuit. It is one of the failings of successive governments that they have not treated the justice system with sufficient seriousness, when you cannot even see that it is in your interest to set up a Supreme Court. That is something that I intend to press," he explained.
"I am also thinking of a potential Court of Appeal circuit. That, I know, might not get as much support initially... but just like how circuit court judges travel to various parishes, it might be that Appeal Court judges could travel to Montego Bay on circuit too. People who are nearby, in Trelawny, St Ann and St Elizabeth could just go to Montego Bay for cases instead of going to Kingston," he said.
Another plan which the new Bar Association head is serious about, is law reporting. Wilkinson believes that the Government of Jamaica, which is responsible for publishing law reports, has fallen down on its responsibility. It is the Bar Association, he said, that has since taken up the slack in terms of putting out law reports.
"The problem is from roughly two years ago there have been a lot of unreported judgements. Sometimes, if you have a case coming up and that decision would help you, unless your lawyer is extremely astute and covers all the bases, you might find that a very important case is not at your fingertips.
"The Court of Appeal has set up a website where it puts the judgements which have come out fairly quickly, but that still needs some work in terms of indexing and making it easier to find relevant cases.
"The Supreme Court of Jamaica, on the other hand, is in really bad shape. The people are trying their best with limited resources, but many times you want material and it's not in the Supreme Court," Wilkinson commented.
"The justice system is so slow, which is contributing to the rise in criminal activities. If a man knew that within two months he would be in prison, it would be a lot different," he said.
Wilkinson admitted that he had his work cut out for him, now that he has been elevated to head the Bar Association, in addition to being president of the Jamaica Chess Federation, assisting with coaching KC's Schools Challenge team, among other things. But, going the route of representational politics could also be a possibility soon.
"I have never had political ambitions, although I have been approached by the PNP, the JLP and the NDM. Those efforts have galvanised into some kind of frenzy in recent times. The truth is that I have not made up my mind one way or the other... My father was a serious Labourite, my mother was a serious Socialist. I have not ruled it out, it depends on how I get involved and what I am expected or required to do.
"The difficulty with me and the political landscape is that the Wilkinson of the 1970s is the Wilkinson of 2011, just an improved model. I am not going to change, so if I am not a thief now, or I am not corrupt now, if I go into politics I cannot become a thief, or become corrupt, although people tell me otherwise.
"People tell me that politics will change me, but I can't see that happening to me. I am willing to represent the people of Jamaica, because I believe that politics is a noble thing."
He chided both major political parties for failing the country.
"When I look around and see the state of this country, the two main political parties, the JLP and PNP ought to be ashamed of themselves. They have dropped the baton several times in one race," Wilkinson said.
At a time when the challenges seem tougher than climbing the Blue Mountains in a hurry, the UWI Cave Hill and Norman Manley Law School graduate continues to be inspired in his pursuits by three people he regards as having the most positive influence on his life -- his mother, sister Doreen, now a doctor abroad, and Carlos, backed up by the readings of Marcus Garvey.
Many of the early personal challenges of growing up in a rough community, having to sit out his first year of law school due to lack of money, among other hiccups, are already out of the way. Now, the spotlight turns to a man who appears bent on restoring respectability to one of the nobler professions around.