The long-awaited Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC) has now been announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
It consists of 14 people who are intended to reflect a broad cross section of Jamaicans. This is as it should be for a matter that will radically transform Jamaica's governance structure and set the country on a path to real independence.
As I have said in this column repeatedly, Jamaica is not a truly independent country. Not when we have a foreign monarch as our head of State and our final appellate jurisdiction residing in the "mother" country. I have not been able to regard with any seriousness our Independence celebrations and indulge the hypocrisy of claiming to be independent when the symbols of our denigration remain firmly entrenched in our constitution. And I will never be able to do so until full sovereignty is given to the people of Jamaica, according to every jot and tittle of the law which evolves.
So the work of this reform committee is of the utmost importance. There are some provisions, such as removal of the monarch and judicial independence, that are evident. Not clearly or easily seen is the framework for governance that will define our political arrangements once we have ditched King Charles III. It is with regard to this and other matters that I find an aspect of the 14-member committee bewildering. This has to do with the preponderance of lawyers on the committee. From my count, 11 of the 14 members are lawyers, though Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs Marlene Malahoo Forte is there in her special capacity as Attorney General.
But how on God's green Earth can you speak of a committee which should be all-embracing and representative of as broad a cross section of the population as possible and have 11 of the 14 members on it drawn from one profession? Apart from the optics, philosophically and from a pragmatic standpoint something does not seem right.
Was this an oversight or a compulsion on the part of those who assembled the committee that since a great deal of legal business will be addressed having many lawyers on it is the way to go. This might be so, but we know the legendary lawyerly disposition of members of the Bar: their penchant to insist on every "i" being dotted and "t" being crossed when broader thinking is required and their typical reluctance to think boldly and take radical decisions.
What one wants to avoid is the kind of legal gobbledygook which often informs legal writing, the simplicity of which is often lost in legalese. A case in point is this section of the Customs Act which was quoted in the Jamaica Observer recently. It was a reference to the action of FosRich terminating a special economic zone (SEZ) arrangement with the custom authorities. It is Section 14 of the Customs Act, the product of legal minds, which states, "All goods deposited in any warehouse without payment of duty on the first importation thereof, or which may be imported or exported and shall not have been entered for use within the island or for exportation as the case may be, shall, upon being entered for use within the island or for exportation as the case may be, be subject to such duties as may be due and payable on the like sort of goods under the customs laws in force at the time when the same are entered save in cases where special provision shall be made to the contrary." (Jamaica Observer, March 22, 2023) Whew! It literally takes your breath away. What in God's high heaven is being conveyed here?
Commissioner of Customs Velma Ricketts-Walker, who I am not sure is a lawyer, did a better job in explaining the section. Said she, "Goods entering the domestic market from an SEZ or directly from overseas for home use are required to pay all applicable duties and taxes." Could this simple explanation be deduced from the verbiage in the clause? It is this kind of thing we want to avoid. One must not be seduced into thinking that the brightest legal minds necessarily produce less fluff and more simplicity of language to which the ordinary person can relate.
I wonder how many of the members of the constitutional commission that gave us our tepid 1962 independence constitution were lawyers? How many of them supported the statement attributed to the venerable David Coore, King's Counsel, that to give to the people justiciable rights is to derogate from the sovereignty of Parliament. It was never the people who were considered sovereign, but the Parliament. Thus, the two major political parties that emerged, to this day, see themselves as being the only ones to govern. The people be damned. In the infamous words of the redoubtable Bobby Pickersgill, no less a lawyer, the People's National Party is best able to govern the country, perhaps by any means necessary. It is this kind of thinking that radicalised political parties in Jamaica and inevitably led to violence and murder in our politics, the effects of which the country is still suffering today.
Let me be clear that I am not beating up on lawyers. So keep your e-mails in check. We might not like them but neither can we do without them. There is one lawyer that I would like to see on this committee, Gordon Robinson. He does not suffer fools gladly and has written extensively and cogently on constitutional reform. I believe he would have a lot to offer, certainly in counter to the timidity of thinking that could attend this process. But would he be invited to join? Do not hold your breath.
I may be wrong and only time will prove me so, but I do not believe the country is best served by this superfluity of lawyers on the committee.
Commenting on the matter in the Senate, Jamaica Labour Party Senator Charles Sinclair, a lawyer, averred that a legal background may be necessary to interpret laws. This cannot be gainsaid, but there can also be an overlay of legalese and sophistry which may stymie a good outcome.
If the deliberations to be undertaken are to be the most comprehensive and impartial attempt at constitutional reform in independent Jamaica, as Sinclair rightly proposed, why not allow that process to benefit from as wide a view of the Jamaican population? Why should it be suffocated by any cultural paralysis emanating from one profession? I do not believe we will get an answer from the Government. After all, they have the sovereign right to determine who sits.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm; Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- We welcome reader comments on the top stories of the day. Some comments may be republished on the website or in the newspaper; email addresses will not be published.
- Please understand that comments are moderated and it is not always possible to publish all that have been submitted. We will, however, try to publish comments that are representative of all received.
- We ask that comments are civil and free of libellous or hateful material. Also please stick to the topic under discussion.
- Please do not write in block capitals since this makes your comment hard to read.
- Please don't use the comments to advertise. However, our advertising department can be more than accommodating if emailed: email@example.com.
- If readers wish to report offensive comments, suggest a correction or share a story then please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.