Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Remembering Nicole Sylvester

Nicole in Nevis

I remember Nicole Sylvester of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who recently passed away, as a superb lawyer and advocate.  During the time that I served as a High Court Judge in the State, she was a frequent barrister appearing in the courts.
I remember her for a number of sterling qualities.  First, and foremost, the court was always able to rely on Nicole to fearlessly give it the law on the issues.  She was never one to conceal a legal authority, no matter how adverse it was to her client’s case.  She never attempted to cover up a fact that her client would have difficulty explaining.  She was never known to cut corners in her preparation and presentation.  She would calmly and eloquently show how there was always another side to any difficult point.
Grenada, 2006
Nicole was a superb cross-examiner.  She had the uncanny ability to enable a witness, by her questions, to prove by his answers that he was not telling the truth.  This is a skill at which no Bar in the Eastern Caribbean can better the members of the Saint Vincent Bar.  But, Nicole was one of its exemplars, a master of the skill.  It was a marvel to observe, and left the observer envious.
Nicole was a high-quality professional in whatever field of law her client’s case fell.  It did not seem to matter that the case was bedded in a minefield of constitutional law and administrative law, or in the bathos of the Matrimonial Proceedings Act.  She always came prepared with copies of the authorities on which she relied, available for the court and for her opponent.  And, this was in the days before exchange of authorities and witness statements was made compulsory by the rules of court.
Nicole with Tapley Seaton QC in Montserrat, 2005
Nicole’s practice was not limited to her home State of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.  When called on, she did not hesitate to take up an unprofitable and unpopular dock brief in a distant country of the Eastern Caribbean, no matter how hopeless the case might be.
Nicole was a senior executive of the Saint Vincent Bar Association during the time that I took the Criminal Assizes.  She was a stalwart in the struggle to improve prison conditions.  During one particularly difficult Assizes, several young men were charged with murder for deaths occasioned mainly by fights mixed with alcohol.  In each of the cases, the prosecution accepted pleas of guilty to manslaughter.  All that was left was for the court to sentence the men.  Given the circumstances in each of the cases, the appropriate sentence at that time would have been several years’ imprisonment.  Given the conditions in Her Majesty’s Prison in Kingstown at that time, multiple rape and HIV infection was a certainty for any young man sent to that place.  Neither condoms nor anti-retroviral drugs were available in prison.  Death is not a prescribed penalty for manslaughter.  The inevitable result of a sentence of even a few years imprisonment would be the certain death of the young men.
Both the prosecution and defence counsel, who was frequently Nicole herself, left the court in no doubt that they would support whatever sentence the court decided was proper in the circumstances.  The decision the court made was to sentence these young men to terms of imprisonment, suspended for three years.  Three years imprisonment was the maximum term that the law of Saint Vincent permitted to be suspended.  The result of such a sentence was that the young men in question were immediately released from custody.  If they did not commit another crime during the three years, they would not serve any time in that prison.  Not a single radio or newspaper journalist published an article critical of the court’s decision to impose suspended sentences in each of those sentences.  I always suspected that Nicole worked behind the scenes to explain the court’s rationale to the journalists who wrote up the court reports.
I was pleased only a few years after being transferred as judge from Saint Vincent to another jurisdiction to learn that the famed British Inspector of Prisons, General Sir David Ramsbotham, had recommended the construction of a new prison.  Within a few years the then new administration of Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves had raised the funds to do so and carried into effect this most desirable reform.
With Ruggles Ferguson, Pesident of the OECS Bar Association, St Lucia, 2009
In later years, I knew Nicole as an officer of the OECS Bar Association, where she famously pioneered, and single-handedly (save for the dedicated staff in her Chambers) initiated and successfully ran the annual Law Fair.  The Law Fair has grown from strength to strength, and is now so well established that it can be described without exaggeration as Nicole’s most enduring monument.  In her memory, I wish the Law Fair increasing success in the years to come.

Written for the Grenada September 2015 OECS Bar Association Law Conference and Law Fair magazine.