STATEMENT BY THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
HONOURABLE DAWN J. SMITH
FIFTEENTH SITTING of the SECOND SESSION of the FOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
1 OCTOBER, 2020
Mr. Speaker, I dedicate my presentation today to expressing my sincere thanks to the Government and people of the Virgin Islands for the confidence that they have placed in me to perform the role, duties and responsibilities of Attorney General. In doing so, I will talk about who I am, how I got here and what I am going to do.
Mr. Speaker, I did not make myself. Nearly 50 years ago, I was born at what was then Peebles Hospital on what I believe was the happiest day of my parents‟ life. Naturally, they cannot admit to this as they have 3 other children – all of whom have made them very proud. I – on the other hand, decided to become a lawyer!
Under the care and tending of my parents, teachers, community and extended family, I made my way through the public school system – the East End Primary School and the BVI High School.
As the valedictorian of the BVI High School Class of 1988, I was awarded Government-funded scholarships that, together with my parents‟ contributions supported me over 9 years of tertiary education. I tried my best throughout not to disappoint and on completion of my studies, I was happy to return home. I have no regrets whatsoever that I did.
I was fortunate, Mr. Speaker, to have been welcomed to the Bar even before I was called to the Bar. In 4th Form, my Spanish teacher asked one of the most senior members of the Bar to take me under his wing for job-training. He agreed and gave me my first real exposure to the practice of law. In his Chambers, a young lawyer took the time to tell me about the honourable profession of law with its traditions as „old as the hills‟ and she introduced me to legal dress. A couple years later, when I was employed as a legal secretary under the watchful eye of one of my aunts, I was captivated by the sincerity of another lawyer as he talked about, and in his work demonstrated, his love for the law. Then, having just been admitted to Cave Hill, I boldly introduced myself to an up and coming lawyer when I saw him walking on Main Street one day. He was gracious and I was rewarded with a letter of introduction to a friend in Barbados and, as in the case of the other lawyers mentioned, mentorship from then on. 2
After being admitted to practice, I saw the kaleidoscope of life and law through property and bank transactions, wills and probate, admiralty, divorces, adoptions, debt collection, corporate work, litigation and whatever else came my way. My seniors and contemporaries at the Bar would challenge me as an opponent yet remind me to notch every win in my desk, no matter how small. Even court staff would give me tips on presenting my cases. It seems as if everyone pitched in.
Mr. Speaker, I have learnt a lot from many people. I have avoided naming names because truth be told – we would be here for quite some time if I were to individually acknowledge the many people - from everywhere and from all walks of my life – that have brought me here today. From them, I have learnt that all of us contribute to the existence of each other, that we must use what talents we have and not let others define us, not to fear adversity and to cherish my visions, my dreams and my independent spirit.
This is not to say Mr. Speaker that there were no difficult or „interesting times‟ or people who were not so nice. In fact, there were many and I expect that there will be many more but I have long resolved in the words of the prayer that some of us know:
“… to do my allotted task with unflagging faithfulness… to be gentle in the face of ingratitude or when slander distorts my noblest motives, … to come to the end of each day with a feeling that I have used its gifts gratefully and faced its trials bravely…
Mr. Speaker, the office of the Attorney General requires a combination of independence, expertise and seniority.
Our Constitution tells us that:
(i) There shall be an Attorney General whose office shall be a public office and who shall be appointed in accordance with section 95;
(ii) The Attorney General shall be the principal legal adviser to the Government and, among other things,
(iii) That the Attorney General is an ex officio member of Cabinet, the House of Assembly and the National Security Council and a member the Prerogative of Mercy Committee.
Apart from the Constitution, several laws prescribe responsibilities for the Attorney General and the Attorney General also has to ensure [as the job description puts it] „the smooth and efficient operation of Chambers.‟ In addition, the Attorney General has to perform as a lawyer with the special professional obligations which attach as a legal practitioner, as an officer of the Court, as the head of the Bar and as the legal representative of her client - the Government.
Mr. Speaker, I started by saying that I did not make myself. Now I go further and say that, given the plethora and variety of responsibilities attached to the role, I alone cannot make a success of my tenure as Attorney General. The Government including the entire public service is an interdependent sum of its many parts and time will tell whether I will be able and allowed to do what I am perfectly capable of doing. I cannot work miracles 3
Mr. Speaker and I will rely on you and all the honourable members and participants in this Honourable House to conduct the subject affairs in an exemplary manner. Politics aside (for that is not my role), may we always be candid and respectful to each other, always mindful of who we are and who and what we represent;
- I will depend on decision-makers at all levels of the Public Service to make good decisions – those that are substantively sound, follow a fair process and comply with the law;
- Mr. Speaker - I have every confidence that the Honourable Premier and Minister of Finance will do his part - but I will look to the Governor‟s Group to ensure that the Chambers is, as advertised, „a normal working environment‟. In 2020, this must mean that it will be equipped and staffed to deliver the quantity and quality of legal representation in the manner befitting the Government of a modern, progressive society – which, you will agree Mr. Speaker – we are.
- I expect that every single member of Chambers (attorneys and other professional and support staff) will bring their best selves to work every day, to take pride in our work and in ourselves and to be relentless in delivering the highest quality of service, advice and representation to the Government.
And, I will hold the Bar at large and the BVI Bar Association, in particular, to continue and indeed, to improve its contributions to the practice and rule of law in these Islands and to mentorship, professional development and continuing legal education.
Mr. Speaker, my fundamental responsibility as Attorney General is to act in the public interest. I will do this by speaking law and truth to power and seeking to come up with the best solutions to ensure:
(a) that the operations of the Government are conducted lawfully and constitutionally; and
(b) that the Government is not prevented from lawfully implementing its chosen policies.
Mr. Speaker – I must say a few words about being a Virgin Islander.
On 11 Feb 2004, the then Government appointed a Commission to carry out a review of the 1967 Constitution with a view to ensuring the continued advancement and good governance of the Virgin Islands and, in particular, to review [among other things] the duties of the Attorney General as the chief legal adviser to the Government.
In their 2005 Report, the Constitutional Commissioners, who were drawn from a cross-section of the Virgin Islands community, recommended that the Constitution expressly establish the office of Attorney General and provide for the office to be filled, in the first instance, by a suitably qualified Belonger. Only where such a person cannot be found or is not available [they recommended], ought the position to be filled by someone else and, in such instance, only on contract.” 4
Mr. Speaker, as the then Director of the BVI London Office, I – like the Hon Member for the 3rd District - was in the room when the 2007 constitutional negotiations were concluded. From that moment, the Constitution was destined to provide, as it now does:
No person shall be appointed to the office of Attorney General unless he or she belongs to the Virgin Islands unless, in the opinion of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, there is no such person who is suitably qualified and able and willing to be so appointed.
Mr. Speaker, it has taken 13 years for this recommendation, which was strongly urged on the Constitutional Commissioners by the public and the Legislative Council (as it was then) and accepted by the framers of the constitution, to come to fruition. Before me, only one such person (21 years ago) has held this position. Of course, I recognise those persons who, not being belongers at the time, have subsequently attained that status but there the cart was before the horse.
Mr. Speaker, the Constitutional commissioners themselves recognized what they called “the practical limitations on finding Virgin Islanders willing to take up the mantle, even for a short period (para 3.28).” I confess that as a Virgin Islander I did not, for many years, see this particular job or even working in Chambers as a newly qualified lawyer or at any point in my career as even remotely attractive. The strength of support and good wishes following the rumours and announcement of my appointment has been sobering and cause for personal introspection. We have to get our act together Mr. Speaker and I hope that, during my tenure, whatever it is that creates such an unwillingness can be rectified and banished forever.
Finally, Mr. Speaker I come back to expressing my thanks. I cannot end without expressing here my special gratitude:
- to our God for his goodness and mercy;
- to my beloved Daniel, my parents Alphagena & Bennet, my siblings Neil, Tessa and Clive, my beautiful children everywhere and my extended family for their enduring love and acceptance.
I acknowledge the confidence being placed in me and the efforts and sacrifices that have been made on my behalf or for my betterment.
I have blessed with prayers, warm congratulations and well-wishes from all over these Islands and across the globe. They use words like „hopeful‟, „happy‟ and „proud‟ and it is not lost on me that while being the Attorney General is my responsibility – my being the Attorney General means many things to many people. I know now from the outpouring of support, good wishes and prayers that I represent not just myself but the people who have made me what I am (for the better or worse), those who share my experiences, those who wish me well and those who are depending on me to perform my responsibilities to the highest standard. 5
I am, of course, also very grateful to you Mr. Speaker for organising this special sitting, for the very warm welcome given to me by the members of this Honourable House and to all in attendance today in person or online for their presence.
I am well and truly humbled.
And I thank you, Mr. Speaker.