Her Honour’s Better Judgement

I must tell the other side of the story of my trials and triumphs in the court of Her Honour.  On matters of the law, her judgement proved impeccable.  This, I readily concede, ought to be the primary consideration in assessing the quality of a magistrate’s rulings.  Language and dress aside!

I ended up in court because I refused to pay for defective goods. I took the advice of my lawyer friends who assured me that it was not essential to be represented by counsel in civil cases.   More to the point, taking up my case would not be a good use of their time since the disputed sum was relatively small.

So I represented myself. Long ago, I’d planned to become a lawyer.  In the 1970’s, I taught literature at a small private college in rural Massachusetts. This was a Seventh-Day Adventist institution and with my long-held ‘radical’ views, it was not an entirely comfortable situation.         Many of the students came from the Caribbean via New York City.  Others lived in relatively unsophisticated communities in New England.  I will never forget the straight-laced young man from upstate Maine who refused to take a fiction course because, as he put it, fiction was all lies.  I was quite happy to encourage him to consider a truthful alternative.

All the same, I was lucky to be teaching at all.  Those days, as now, the job market in academia was very bad.  My classmates at the University of Toronto where I was doing my Ph.D. were envious of my job, which I snapped up even before I’d finished writing the dissertation.

But after almost five years of restriction in a fundamentalist Christian culture, I knew I had to ‘bruck out.’  I took some students in a course on Caribbean literature on a field trip to Boston to see The Harder They Come and was duly reprimanded by the Academic Dean.  Those days, good Adventists didn’t go to the movies.

Practising law without a license

So I decided to go to law school. I was accepted by my first choice, Georgetown.  Soon after, I found out about a job at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  I got it and decided to come home instead of abandoning literature for law.

I’ve occasionally regretted that decision, but not for long.  And, I suppose, law is in my blood.  My brother, Kingsley, and my sister, Donnette, are both lawyers.  And as Donnette mischievously likes to say, I’m always practising law without a license.

So here was my big moment to prove my skills as a bogus lawyer in the Resident Magistrate’s court!  The facts of the case were quite straightforward, unlike the dodgy operator with whom I was contending.  Believe it or not, the plaintiff conceded that the windows he’d supplied, as well as the installation, were both substandard.  And he agreed to refund my deposit.  But he would do so only if I allowed him to remove the faulty windows within a month or so.  Otherwise, I would have to pay for them!

Since he had spent almost five months on a job that should have been completed in about three weeks, I considered his proposal completely wicked and refused to accept it.  I needed time to decide on alternative windows and then to have them manufactured.  Refusing to bow to reason, the unconscionable man proceeded to sue me for breach of contract.

Arrogant ruling class

The case was first ‘mentioned’ and then after several false starts was finally heard.  Since I speak English, Her Honour had no problem communicating with me.  Because I wasn’t a ‘real-real’ lawyer, she patiently walked me through procedural matters.  For this I was most grateful.

And Her Honour did have a sense of humour.  When the plaintiff’s lawyer tried to smuggle into evidence documents that had not been properly filed, I immediately objected.  The judge laughed and remarked that I had quickly learnt from observing the operations of the court.  In an earlier case that morning, she had refused to accept dubious documents.

Since I had not managed to file my own documents, I offered to accept the plaintiff’s if his lawyer would return the favour.  We came to an amicable agreement.  I was able to enter into evidence pictures of the defective windows, pointing out the fact that some of them could not be fully closed.

The plaintiff mulishly insisted that the images were fraudulent.  The windows were actually open and I was pretending that they were supposedly closed.  Her Honour grandly cut to the chase.  She moved the court to my house so that she could examine the windows!

Leahcim Semaj

My chief witness and photographer of the windows, Dr. Leahcim Semaj, was amazed that the plaintiff would embarrass himself by allowing the court to be relocated when he knew full well that the photos were accurate.  It must have been the desperation of a drowning man; or the complete arrogance of the Jamaican ruling class.

We later returned to court to hear Her Honour’s judgement.  It was faultless – and not because she ruled in my favour.   In a 4-page document, she carefully delineated the legal principles that guided her decision:  “The duty to provide goods reasonably fit for the purpose is a strict one; it is no defence that all care was taken.” Furthermore, “a contract which is rescinded by agreement is completely discharged and cannot be revived.”

All the same, Her Honour’s failings on matters of language and dress remain a troubling issue.  But her judgemental posture is not unique.  It appears to be the norm in Jamaica’s elitist legal system.  And that’s a disturbing indictment of our fundamentally unjust society.


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