Tuesday, June 25, 1996

Origins - Don Mitchell Travels Through Time

In June 1971, having been duly called to the bar in the Old Hall of the Inner Temple, I returned to St Kitts in the West Indies to learn what the practice of law was all about.  I was born in 1946 in the poor, mainly black, rural sugar-cane growing island of St Kitts.  In 1951, when I was 5 years old, my parents emigrated from that island, and I grew up in the polyglot, polychrome, cosmopolitan island of Trinidad. 

On being called to the bar in London, not being a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, I could not commence my working career in Trinidad without a work permit.  I knew no members of the legal profession in Trinidad.  Meanwhile, in my native island of St Kitts there was my elderly uncle Frank Henville QC, who offered to help me to get started.  He invited me to do my pupillage with him, and after six months I went out on my own.  My shingle described me as a “Barrister and Solicitor of the West Indies Associated States Supreme Court.”

The first five years were more difficult than I could have anticipated.  Maggie fortunately worked as a graduate teacher in the Basseterre Junior High School, or we would have starved.  In the early years, it was mainly a Magistrate’s Court practice.  One had to do ten cases a day to survive, and I was lucky to have one or two cases.  I could not have managed without the assistance and encouragement of two persons, the senior Magistrate, Clement Arrindell,[1] and a colleague in the neighbouring chambers who was only slightly older than myself, Dennis Byron.[2]

Then, in August 1976 came an invitation from the Government of Anguilla to serve as Magistrate of this Island of 7,000 souls.  The cable from Commissioner Le Breton read, as far as I can recall, “Understand you have Anguilla connections. Seeking Magistrate/Registrar for Anguilla”.  My wife and I took an air taxi the 70 mile trip from St Kitts to Anguilla.  Babs Carty and her daughter Allison drove us around the island for most of the day.  I discovered that I had more cousins in Anguilla even than in St Kitts.

Within a month we had relocated, and now you could not prise us loose with a rock-shattering Priestman.  There followed four years on the Magistrate’s bench, from which I learned even more about the practice of law.  For several years after my arrival in 1976 there was no resident private practice lawyer.  At first and for several years, the only government lawyers were the Attorney-General, the late Reginald Lucie-Smith, and myself.  The duties of Magistrate included those of Registrar of the Supreme Court, Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Registrar of Companies, Trade Marks, Patents, Trades Unions, Newspapers, Secretary to the Medical Board, Marriage Officer, Coroner, and many others.  The Magistrate wore seventeen hats in all.

Just a few days before my four year contract came to an end, in December 1980, Commissioner Godden called me in to his office to say that he was sorry, but the Chief Minister required that he fire me as Magistrate.  I had been guilty of counselling the striking Civil Service.  I had persuaded a few hot-heads not to firebomb the lone secondary school in protest at what they perceived was political victimisation of some of their members, following a change of government after a general election.   
So, back out into private practice I went, with my father’s old .455 Webley revolver tucked under my pillow for protection for the first six months.  It is back in the vault now, only brought out occasionally to fire at the odd stray dog.

The 1980s was a good time to be a barrister and solicitor in private practice in Anguilla with 10 years of experience under one’s belt.  The offshore financial industry had its early beginnings then.  One stayed out of politics.  The clients and their fees poured in.  One worked 18 hours a day.  The house and pool got built.  The freehold of the office was acquired.  A small investment portfolio was built up.  Then came the crash of October 1987, and the recession that followed.  Yes, it affected Anguilla too.  If only because the tourist industry was badly hit.  Also, the overseas clients no longer had any tax-free dollars or pounds sterling to hide in Anguilla.

Our practice now is almost completey computerised.  Our accounts clerk tells me that the fees can be almost equally divided into three areas of legal practice:  local commercial work, offshore commercial work, and litigation.  The local commercial advice is given to clients that include banks, investment companies, trust companies, hotels, restaurants, building contractors, and land developers.  The offshore commercial work seems to come mainly from the USA and Canada. 

There is a sprinkling of clients from Switzerland, the UK, France, South America, Hong Kong and Japan.  There is the husband buying a condo in Miami for the girlfriend, and the exporter doing a little re-invoicing.  There are also the classic asset protection trusts.  And there are captive insurance companies to make life really interesting. 

The Judge visits once in a while, allowing an opportunity for a litigation practice.  Anguilla is considered too small to have its own Judge.  So, the Judge who normally resides in the nearby sister Dependent Territory of Montserrat visits two or three times a year.  And, of course, when he is here everything else is expected to come to a dead stop.  The barristers/solicitors hang around the old Court House hoping their case will come up on time, or at least, next best to that, within a day or two.

Now, in June 1996, one’s 25th anniversary at the bar is around the corner.  Young practitioners call one up and ask for advice.  The schools and the churches and the young people’s associations invite one to address them on social, political and economic issues.  One has done one’s community service and been a member of all the social and cultural groups.  There are now two associates in the Chambers to help now.  One is still working 18 hours a day.  The difference is that now, in the hard days of the 1990s, one’s invoices aren’t always paid.  One doesn’t get to visit London and dine in the Old Hall at the Inner Temple very often any longer.  And one is still wondering what new development the practice of law in Anguilla will bring.

First published in Anguilla Life Magazine, in July 1996, under the heading “Origins”.

[1]       Later Sir Clement A Arrindell GCMG, CGVO, QC, Governor General of St Kitts and Nevis.
[2]       Later to become Chief Justice of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court and subsequently the second President of the Caribbean Court of Justice.