Columns

The Keeper of the Rolls

Lance NEITA

Saturday, January 04, 2014    

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IT was a pleasure attending a small swearing-in ceremony for St Ann's new Custos, the Honourable Norma Walters, on December 31. The public installation ceremony will take place in early 2014. The swearing-in would normally have been held at King's House, but was kept at Seville Great House as a matter of convenience to all parties.

This new appointment is unprecedented as, for the first time in Jamaica's history, we have a wife succeeding her husband, in this case the Honourable Radcliffe Walters, as Custos. The Walters family is well known and admired in the parish. He for his exemplary and diligent administration of office for the past 15 years; she for a lifetime of leadership and public service at civic, social, charity, church and voluntary levels.

The elegant and dignified ceremony marked the changing of the guard in a long line of custodial appointments unique only to Jamaica and the British Isles where the custom prevails.

The office of Custos is still a bit of a mystery to many who are unaware of the duties and responsibilities that fall on the first citizen of the parish.

The term Custos Rotulorum is Latin for "Keeper of the Rolls" which is exactly what the office was designed for first of all in England, where it was commissioned by Richard II in 1391 and in Jamaica where the earliest reference goes back to 1668.

The Keeper of the Rolls was charged to be the custodian of court and justice records in the parish, and to maintain a roster of justices of the peace so that sufficient justices might be available for petty court sessions. The responsibilities merited the title of chief magistrate, as so assigned, and the chief magistrate was expected to assist in the maintenance of good discipline and order and the upholding of the rule of law in the parish.

Today, the custos still appoints justices of the peace and takes precedence within the parish over the mayor in matters of State, but not of parochial administration. The office is more than ceremonial and has major duties outlined by law, one being to represent the governor general, or in his absence to receive the Sovereign or any member of the royal family, or the prime minister, on visits to the parish. As chief magistrate, he or she is to meet the judge of the Circuit Court at the courthouse at the opening session.

As a representative of the governor general, the custos is also to use the office for involvement in the work of all voluntary organisations in the parish.

The latter can be quite tedious as custodes find themselves acting as chair of the Governor General's Achievement Awards, the parish committees on land reform, the community consultation committees, Labour Day committees, parish disaster preparedness committees, and of course president of the Lay Magistrates' Association, among others.

Custodes are persons chosen for influence, lifestyle example, respect and independence, and surprise, surprise, they are not paid. Yet they carry out their responsibilities and volunteer duties assiduously, willingly lending themselves as patrons of sports, education, industry, and character building.

Jamaicans are quite comfortable with their custodes. They have proven responsive to requests and give of their patronage at all levels, particularly in the case of the former Custos Walters who offered his support, leadership and presence in varying instances of high and low degree.

This was not always so. Up until the 1960s Jamaican custodes were of the upper class and chosen more for their financial standing and ownership of property and plantation. In the early days, they would have been bosom friends of the colonial governors and threw lavish balls and entertainment where the ordinary Jamaican could only stand and stare. There were, of course, many exceptions to this, as over the centuries custodes emerged who gave fair measure to all segments of society. Of blessed memory is the custos who preceded Radcliffe Walters, Dr the Honourable Osmond Tomlinson, who was loved for his charm, sense of service, generousity, and kindness. Of a similar nature, too, was Custos Val Parnell of Trelawny and many more.

Not so for the first custos who was none other than that rascal of a pirate Henry Morgan, who was the custos of Port Royal before ascending to the governor's chair. So the history of our custodes is colouful and eventful. They have been gallant, selfless; they have been plantation backras and powerful colonists. With the tide turning since Independence we have seen a line of Jamaican ladies and gentlemen from all walks of life with thoroughbred antecedents holding that high office.

In terms of carrying out their mandate to maintain law and order, the custos and his or her justices, in earlier times, could have resorted to the Riot Act which authorised local authorities to declare any group of 12 or more people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus to disperse or face punitive action.

The language of the 1714 Act is quite colourful and would be read by the custos or a justice of the peace.

"Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons being assembled to immediately disperse themselves and peaceably to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George for preventing tumultuous and riotous assemblies. God Save the King."

Oliver Clarke likes to remind in a humourous vein that the last Custos to read the Riot Act before a crowd of dissenters was Baron von Ketelhodt of St Thomas, who read the Act on the steps of the Morant Bay Courthouse before a rebellious crowd on October 11, 1865. The Baron was promptly executed by the 'riotous assembly" and since then the Riot Act has been carefully placed aside.

Then there is the story of those two irascible custodes of Kingston and St Catherine, whose carriages met head on at the centre of Flat Bridge one morning. Both men ordered their driver not to move and, after a while, Kingston sent his coach valet to the other carriage to ask custos to kindly reverse as he was in a hurry to get across. At which point the St Catherine Custos took up his Gleaner and started to read signifying he was in no hurry to go anywhere, only for the valet to return with a message that his boss was asking custos to "please send over the Gleaner when he is finished as he too wanted to have a read".

Yes, our modern custodes reflect a darker hue of skin more in keeping with the balance of the population density and ratios in our society. But in this case colour does not matter. The present holders of this office continue to confirm our faith in ourselves and our abilities to fill and serve in leadership positions at the highest possible standards.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications specialist. Comments to lanceneita@hotmail.com or to the Observer.

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