West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Who’s the clever clogs?

In watching the enquiry unfold, many cameos play out. This week, one that struck me was a kind of pissing contest. Here’s what I saw and my thoughts.

Many of the lawyers who take testimony from witnesses and cross examine them are senior counsels in the British-based system, identified by the term QC (Queen’s Counsel). Like many arenas where ranks may be clear, those who don’t have the stripes or pips on their uniform, often get put through the wringer, to show their mettle. In sports, it’s often termed hazing. Bottom line, though, is that newbies and underlings often get belittled. We hear about it too with big firms, say, in finance. We know it goes on in legal chambers. Some claim it’s ‘character building’. All of that ‘training’ is often out of sight. When it becomes public, many are shocked. Protests may come and calls to cease and desist may follow, from many levels.

What’s also notable, is how these patterns of behaviour disappear or get modified when so-called equals are sparring.

This week, a young and relatively inexperienced attorney entered the proceedings. He got picked on early by the ‘senior boys’. In truth, he was put into a bad position by those from whom he’d taken over. His immediate predecessor parted company suddenly with the client, after what seemed like unimpressive and poorly prepared representation. (She, too, had been heard asking off-camera, why people were being “so mean”.) Prior to that, the initial senior counsel was excused further involvement after being cited for alleged acts of corruption. Tough antecedents.

The ‘new boy’ came not dressed properly. He looked quite neat and presentable in his shirt and sweater, but the dress code the big boys adhered to was more formal, with shirt and tie or even custom-made legal dress. The new boy heard the comments, and on the next day, he came in suit and tie, then followed that by donning some stylish lawyer garb. Dude! Welcome to the club. 

 By comparison with the Alpha males, though, the new boy had much to learn. Teasing or niggling asides kept coming. It got to the stage that the ‘head master’ had to give the senior boys a telling off: “We’re West Indians, not Australian cricketers. There will be no sledging.” For a man who likes his cricket metaphors, this was a clear warning. The big boys started to behave a little better. 

 Now, one has to remember that though the new boy kept on saying that the enquiry is about seeking truth, that’s not a simple thing agreed upon by all. The attorneys have clients who have positions to protect, and in so doing, need to establish ‘truth’ that fits their image and reputation. As things proceed, therefore, we often get interventions when that reputation is put at risk. The new attorney ‘went there’ when he asked a retired JDF officer if soldiers were carrying acid. He faced objections from a JDF lawyer and the commission chair warned the whippersnapper about his future line of questioning.

The young attorney is representing residents of Tivoli Gardens, many of whom claim they were abused by the security forces, so he’s less than sympathetic to the reputation of soldiers and police. He sought to rankle a JDF witness who, frankly, was testing the patience of even the ever-patient chair by taking long periods before seeking to answer questions and then used language that should have been on the cutting floor of a manual of clear English. Maybe, he felt the use of terms like ‘purview’ or double- and triple-negatives would make his replies seem much more convincing.

The young attorney pressed some questions and after another rambling reply that had a clever dig at the end, said he found the JDF witness “evasive and facetious”. That’s fiery stuff in these proceedings. But, guess what? The answers stated to come a bit faster.

The young man tried to probe the emotional state of the soldiers. But, when he asked about whether they exhibited anxiety, he got flailed by the QC representing the JDF, who wanted to know if psychiatrists would be called to help support such contentions. I found that interesting, not least because earlier the same day the chair had asked the JDF officer whether his troops might have been angry. Where was the attempt to upbraid the chair? I’ll wait for an answer. Clearly, the emotional state of security personnel is not trivial. In fact, the JDF officers had drawn attention to it when talking about the lowered morale of their JCF counterparts, as a result of their being under personal heavy attack or their stations being attacked the day before the main operations to enter Tivoli began. Talking about the supposed better mental state of your men is all positive grist to your mill and good putting down of others.

The world knows of many excesses by soldiers and police officers, and in recent times, we’ve seen these in graphic details. We often see them in what appears to be unprovoked situations. We even know of a recent incident in the U.S., where the officer’s behaviour was put into context because he’d had a bad few days and was coming from another stressful call.

So, amongst the many things we see in the enquiry are the need to keep up appearances. The chair made clear that he has noted inconsistent JDF testimony and will draw attention to that in his report. So, the appearances are not under special protection, in his mind. Interesting, then, that the JDF witness then sought to modify his statements by saying maybe fatigue made his recall in written statements less than accurate. Really? Maybe, we need to start questioning afresh.

Meanwhile, the music plays on. Some boys want to kick dirt over the picture others are trying to draw in the sand. Let them. Thankfully, more of this is visible to a wider public. It may not change much, immediately, but facades are not going to look the same going forward.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)