10 December, 2009

The job

On Becoming a Judge – By Don Mitchell CBE QC, former secretary of the OECS Bar Association, 1989-1999
When your heart gives out, and you die ten times on the operating table, it is usually a good sign that it is time to retire from the practice of law.  That happened to me. 
I can still remember Dr Terry Isaacs, my wife’s gynaecologist, settling me onto his examination couch with the words, “Well, Don, I’ll do my best, but you are the wrong gender, and I will be examining the wrong end.”  He was the only doctor I knew in St Vincent at the time. 
He listened hard on his stethoscope for a few minutes, then said, “Don, you have the heart rate of a teenage Somali long-distance runner.  That would be very good if you were a teenage Somali long-distance runner. But, since you are a sedentary middle aged West Indian lawyer, I think you should go to see a specialist.”  With that, he dispatched me to be examined by Jeff Massay in Barbados.
Jeff is a brilliant surgeon, and he undoubtedly saved my life.  I remember him intently reading the notes his nurse had made, then looking up and saying, “Your heart is beating only 45 times per minute.”
“Is that good or bad”, I asked.  He shook his head, “Lawyers and lizards, we always knew both of you required very little oxygen.”
After that he put me on the table in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and inserted my pacemaker.  He had to put it on the right hand side of my chest.  He said as he did so, “Not to worry, Don, usually with lawyers we find no heart at all.  At least you have one, even if it is on the wrong side.”
That is when I died and retired from law and went to heaven as a judge in St Vincent.
Years later, Chief Justice Dennis Bryon told me of the shock he received when he got his first pay cheque as a judge in Antigua.  His two sons’ school fees in Barbados were more than the total amount of the judge’s pay cheque.  He had to bring them back home immediately.  My salary cheque for my first month did not cover Maggie and my wine bill at Gonsalves Liquors in Kingstown.
In fact, the salary cheque was only a few hundred dollars more than I used to pay one of my secretaries before I closed my practice.  I must say conditions improved a couple of years later when the Prime Ministers agreed to double our salaries.  I trust it has been doubled again.  They cannot continue to rely on a supply of half-dead lawyers being available to fill the bench of the Easter Caribbean Supreme Court.
After two and a half years in St Vincent, with spells in Grenada, St Lucia and Dominica, the Chief Justice moved me to Antigua.  There I was to spend another two and a half years, with spells in Nevis, St Kitts, Montserrat, Anguilla and Tortola.  The amount of work was overwhelming.  I remember asking the Chief Justice why he kept sending me to places where there was so much work to do.  His only response was, “Don we are both Kittitians.  Kittitians really know how to cut cane.”  Which, I think, was his way of telling me not to be a wimp, but to soldier on.
I think I did well to survive doing the job for five years.  I was ready to go after four.  But, I hung on for five, because I had been told by head office in St Lucia that five years would ensure I got a pension, or at the very least a gratuity.  Four years’ service would not count.  Five years would be necessary for there to be a little reward at the end of the day. 
After five years on the bench, I was completely exhausted.  I was dropping things and forgetting things.  I went to see the premier psychiatrist in Antigua, Dr James King.  I told him that I was very worried, as I was in the terminal stages of Alzheimers.  He asked me why I was seeing him if I already knew what my problem was.  I explained that I needed a second opinion.
He took pity on me and gave me an examination.  I had to answer a lot of questions and do various memory tricks.  At the end of it, he explained to me that I was not suffering from Alzheimers.  I was, he said, an aging obsessive-compulsive.  Apparently, when you are a young obsessive-compulsive that is not such a bad thing.  As Dr King explained, he would much rather have an obsessive-compulsive lawyer worrying over his clients’ legal problem than have one who laughed and relaxed all the time while mailing out his bills.
The problem with being an aging obsessive-compulsive is that your body cannot answer to all the demands it was able to handle in younger years.  The body begins to rebel when you decide to do two trials a day, and one hundred Chamber matters on Friday morning.  Since it takes two days to prepare for one day of Chamber matters, that means staying up to all hours of the night reading files and making notes about their contents.  One did that in between writing the judgments. 
We were told we had to write our judgments within three months of the end of the case.  That was too long a period.  Every time I waited three months, it was a disaster.  I had to read every file and every note all over again.  It was like I had never seen the witnesses nor heard the evidence.  I found I had to write every judgment within a day or two of the end of the trial, since I immediately forgot that the trial had ever taken place, far less what had been said in it.  Dr King explained it was the natural result of an aging obsessive-compulsive believing that he could continue to bite off more than he could chew.
The doctor recommended that I take a long holiday.  What did he mean by a long holiday?  Six months, he suggested.  Needless to say, being an obsessive-compulsive, I applied for a year off.  To my astonishment, the Judicial and Legal Services Commission granted it.  They must really have been glad to see my back.  So, we packed up the dogs and possessions, gave up the house in Antigua, and flew back to Anguilla.
After six months resting, gardening, reacquainting myself with family and friends, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.  You can imagine what I did next.  I compulsively wrote to the acting Chief Justice, Adrian Saunders, submitting my resignation.  I had had enough.  There was no way I was going back to that heavy burden of obsessively trying cases and worrying about justice in Antigua and Barbuda.
It would have been nice if there had been the promised gratuity at the end of it.  Turns out, you have to work for at least ten years to expect to get anything under the Pensions Act of Anguilla.  I did not fight it.  There was no client to pay my fees for going to court.  I compulsively forgot about pension. 
Since then, I have been obsessively enjoying myself teaching CAPE law three half-days a week in the High School in Anguilla.  I have 18 students this year.  I fill in the spare time providing a free legal aid clinic three half-days a week out of the Welfare Department. 
I call it practising stress-free law.
[I wrote this article for the OECS Bar Association 20th anniversary commemorative magazine published earlier this month.  My apologies to those who have heard the jokes before.]


  1. What a wonderful story. Thank you, Don!

  2. Dear Don,

    Your regular readers from the Turks and Caicos Islands wish you a long, long, long life. The Caribbean needs you fit, and in fighting shape!

    Great column!

    Best Wishes


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