It delights me to praise at­torney Clive Phelps for his selfless action in declining a long service award from the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago (LATT). The nation owes him a huge debt of grati­tude for highlighting one of the problems that resides at the epi­centre of the problems that the nation faces.

I note the words of Mr. Phelps as reported by Shane Superville in the Newsday last week. “VETER­AN attorney Clive Phelps has de­clined a long-service award from LATT citing the association’s fail­ure to live up to its responsibility to the public, to obtain redress for prisoners languishing in the Remand Yard prison for decades without trial.”
The report continued “Hav­ing received a letter from LATT president Douglas Mendes, SC, in October about the award, set to be given at the association’s annual dinner, Phelps replied on Mon­day outlining the reason for his decision to “humbly” decline the award. A copy of Phelps’ letter to Mendes was forwarded to News­day in which he accused the Law Association and, by extension, the Judiciary of failing to fulfill its mandate.”
The report quoted from Phelps’ letter to LATT Phelps wrote, “I am constrained in good conscience, to humbly decline accepting an honour to be bestowed on me by an organisation charged with the responsibility of protecting and assisting members of the public in matters relating to law, promot­ing good relations between the profession and those concerned with the administration of jus­tice, which has failed miserably in its responsibility to the public to obtain redress for prisoners lan­guishing in the Remand Yard for decades without trial, or to sup­port the administration of justice by pressing for the reform of an outdated prison system.”
He also said every attorney should feel regret for the state of the criminal justice system and criticised attorneys for their ar­rogance.
“It should be a matter of per­sonal regret for every lawyer that our criminal justice system is what it is, that the conduct of our judiciary, for the most part, is marked by arrogance and a pro­found misunderstanding of its role to be impartial adjudicators of disputes.
“Our beloved profession’s standards have plummeted to the point where cases are won and lost without any regard to the le­gal merits or the truth and public confidence in the judiciary falls below that of the TT Police Ser­vice.”

Every one of Mr Phelps’ observations is shared by most people in the country

Every one of Mr. Phelps’ obser­vations is shared by most people in the country. The problems he references affect us all and we should expect our highly trained professionals to lead the way in offering solutions. In reality, we have not even been offered dis­cussions, learned or otherwise, on these pressing matters. Is it a fear of upsetting the political leaders of the day that prevents or highly trained professionals from dis­charging what I consider to be a critical part of their professional responsibilities?
“I invite you to consider wheth­er, in fact, none of our attorneys understood the effects of the noto­rious Section 34 when it was pro­claimed or before? Attorneys for the persons involved in the Piarco matter certainly understood and quickly exploited it. With the no­table exception of Elton Prescott SC in the Senate, nary a word of enlightenment was heard. Why do we have no tradition of our lead­ing attorneys sharing opinion on controversial of just plain bad legislation in a manner that would assist Parliamentarians in avoid­ing distressing the nation with bad laws with grave consequences?”
Where is LATT (and its promi­nent members) when we have an open need for their intervention? I refer you again to the recent re­marks of a High Court judge when passing judgment in the appeal by Afra Raymond for documents to be provided under the Freedom of Information Act. Here are the judge’s comments.
“115. This Court is of the view that there is reasonable evidence in the public domain as evidenced by the information previously placed before the courts, in other court matters which involve the bailout, which raises legitimate concerns and questions as to whether fi­nancial irregularities and or over­payments may have occurred. In addition, the possible abuse of au­thority and/or neglect in the per­formance of official duties by the Directors of CL Financial Limited and its subsidiaries, CMMB, CIB, CLICO and British-American Insurance is also an issue which needs to be addressed and if estab­lished, culpable persons should be held to account.

  1. The fact that a Commis­sion of Inquiry was formed in order to carry out such an inves­tigation fortifies this Court’s view that there exists an undeniable public interest in ascertaining and understanding the multiplicity of failures and factors which led to the collapse of these financial insti­tutions and there is an equal need to ensure that no irregularities occurred during the bailout. The decision not to disclose the con­tents of the Commission’s report is one which should urgently be reviewed in the public interest.”
    How could the Law Associa­tion and our leading attorneys have nothing to say about a matter of such transparent magnitude? Is it because the politicians (of both major parties) prefer not to discuss this matter? Or is it simply that their policy is not to venture opin­ion on any issues whatsoever? I am of the certain view that LATT is failing spectacularly to live up to the professional standards that they claim to uphold when they behave in this way. They fail the nation and may I add, they bear significant responsibility for the state in which we find ourselves at this time.

Our professional classes have failed us

They are not alone though. In the same CLICO matter, we have the abject performance of our well (over)paid Accountancy firms, most notably Price Water­house Coopers and KPMG with­out whose failures we would not have had to deal with the disasters of the collapse in the first instance and secondly the abuse of public and private funds during the res­cue in the second instance.
How can one rationalise the near certainty of malfeasance as expressed by the judge with a lack of comment by the highly paid Accountants? In preparing the annual accounts and doing the annual audits did they not en­counter the abuse that so troubled the learned judge? Are we really to accept such a preposterous no­tion?
While looking at the accoun­tants and their professional body (ICATT), where were they while Petrotrin directors were spending twelve billion dollars on worth­less projects. Why did the man­agement and audited accounts not highlight the problem long before the cost reached stratospheric lev­els? Why did the government, as shareholder, not test the possible professional and legal liability of the accounting firms for their failure? Those failures cost us bil­lions of dollars.
It distresses me to say that across the board, our profession­al classes have remained silent in the face of situations where they ought to be leading. I could not agree with Mr. Phelps any more than I do. He does deserve an award. That award should be from the nation, in gratitude for his selfless act. I live in hope that others will find the courage to fol­low his example.