Caribbean Attorneys: Legal Practitioners or Lawbreakers?

It is no secret that many local and overseas residents have had appalling experiences at the hands of a group of ‘professionals’ in the Caribbean who have displayed behaviour that is most unbefitting of their profession.

One law for them and one for you
Too many attorneys in the Caribbean appear to be a law unto themselves.  For example, some hold clients’ funds indefinitely, allow clients’ files to go into ‘sleep mode’ for an inordinate period of time, and the worse of the bunch, use clients’ funds for personal expenses.  What recourse is available to innocent victims of these unscrupulous individuals?

The need for independence
It may surprise you to know that most Caribbean islands have a body whose role is to govern their attorney members.  But guess what? The members of these governing bodies are themselves attorneys, many of whom will have attended the same junior, high and/or law school as those they are supposed to ‘govern’.  Furthermore, many move in the same circles.

Barbadian lawyers behaving badly
To give you some idea about the current state of the legal profession in the Caribbean, I recently came across an article on a Barbadian website (Barbados Free Press) where it stated that the President of the Barbados Bar Association blamed the public for choosing crooked lawyers “at random”.   It is reported that when asked about the high number of lawyers recently charged with misappropriating clients’ money, the President responded by saying that Barbadians “have to stop picking a lawyer at random or choosing one simply because a friend suggested a name.”  The President also cautioned the public to avoid lawyers with “cash flow problems”.  What is most interesting here is that the BFP further pointed out that the Barbados Bar Association website actually recommends lawyers who have been caught stealing from clients.  This is due to the fact that the names of these attorneys can still be found on the Barbados Bar Association’s website, leaving innocent (often overseas) clients to find out the hard way that the attorney whose services they have retained has acted improperly in the past.

Even more shocking, the President of the Barbados Bar Association went on to say, “…  I suspect that this is not the end of the line because we are now in a recession and cash is tight. There is a cash flow problem, not only with attorneys. I would suspect with the country as a whole. So I don’t think we have heard the end of the story as yet. But, yes, we are concerned . . . and the public can help themselves by vetting the attorney in whom they entrust the business.” 

Yes, you’ve read correctly.  This is a warning to you from the President of the Barbados Association that your hard-earned money could be lost to attorneys in Barbados because the island is going through a recession.

Jamaican lawyers behaving badly
On 9th March 2015, RJR News (Jamaica) published an article titled ‘300 complaints against attorneys before General Legal Council’.  See below for story.

“RJR News understands that the General Legal Council (GLC) is now looking into more than 300 complaints filed against attorneys-at-law by clients.

Last week, prominent attorneys Harold Brady and Michael Lorne were charged with defrauding their clients of millions of dollars. The police are also investigating other complaints against other attorneys.

The General Legal Council is concerned about the number of complaints being filed, especially by elderly persons, most of who live overseas.

They have complained of money not being paid over to them in real estate deals. However, it’s understood that the bulk of the complaints involves negligence, delays in having cases heard and dishonesty on the part of attorneys who reportedly collected money for cases they failed to take to court.

It’s understood that the Disciplinary Committee of the GLC is probing more than 20 cases in which individuals and companies have been defrauded of millions of  dollars.

The complainants took the cases to the Council for mediation instead of reporting the matter to the Fraud Squad.  According to our sources, the complainants have taken this route with the hope that the GLC will apply pressure on the attorneys to hand over their money.”

St. Lucian lawyers behaving badly
Although St. Lucia does not seem to be plagued with as high a level of complaints against their attorneys as other Caribbean islands, a case presented to the High Court of St. Lucia by the Disciplinary Committee found that “the Attorney at Law had failed to do the following”:

  1. To complete the matters undertaken and paid for.
  2. To pay the Vendor the purchase price.
  3. To refund the Applicants’ monies paid including the purchase price after requested to do so by the Applicants and the Applicants’ Solicitors.
  4. Grossly betraying his clients’ confidence to the point whereby the Applicants were forced to retain Solicitors to recover monies paid to the Attorney at Law and obtaining an injunction to freeze the Attorney’s clients account albeit to no avail as it turned out that there were no funds in the said account.
  5. To provide the Applicants or the Committee with any reasonable explanation for said failures.
  6. Disgraceful and dishonorable behavior on the part of the Attorney of Law amounting to professional misconduct.”

The Court ordered that the attorney’s name “is not to be entered on the Roll and he is not to be allowed to practice as an attorney-at-law in the State of Saint Lucia.”

Many of the failings on the part of the attorney in St. Lucia are not dissimilar to those committed by too high a number of attorneys in other Caribbean islands. However, the outcome meted out to the attorney in St. Lucia needs to be implemented more often in other islands in the region where bad attorneys are too often allowed to continue practising.

Complainants need to be lawyers
For the complainant who chooses to report their attorney to the relevant governing body, they will find themselves having to present ‘evidence’ of their complaint in a format not unlike that one would expect from a litigating solicitor.  Most complainants will find this challenging and are likely to abandon the idea of complaining about their attorneys.  Already stressed as a result of poor conduct on the part of their attorneys, complainants should not have to go through preparing Affidavits and collating documentary evidence as though they were lawyers.  These procedures can be simplified to make it easier for complainants, most of whom have not attended law school so should not be expected to act as though they had.

Tips for choosing a ‘good attorney’
I could not finish this article without giving you some basic tips about some of the things you can do to help you when looking for ‘good attorney’ to deal with your legal affairs in the Caribbean.

  1. Contact the relevant governing body on the island in which the attorney you wish to retain is based and ask them if they have received any complaints against the attorney.  If yes, ask them whether or not the complaint or complaints were upheld.  You should ask about the nature of any complaints that were upheld and if not provided to you, then it may be advisable to seek the services of another attorney.
  2. Check if the attorney’s registration/licence to practice is up-to-date.  If it is not, then it may be advisable to seek the services of another attorney.
  3. Where a law firm has a website, check to see if there are any testimonials from past clients. 
  4. Request a written breakdown of fees and disbursements from the attorney whose services you decide to retain to deal with your legal affairs in the Caribbean.  Do not retain the attorney who fails to honour this simple request, but treat it as a sign of what is to come.

These tips do not guarantee that you may not still find yourself the victim of a negligent, unscrupulous and/or lawbreaking attorney in the Caribbean, but at least you can be proud of the fact that you carried out some due diligence to help you choose a good legal practititioner.

The good attorneys
And finally, to those reputable and trusted attorneys in the Caribbean with whom Tropical Connections has established an excellent working relationship over the years, we thank you for helping us maintain our reputation with our clients through the quality of services delivered to them by your good selves.  You know who you are!

Article by Maureen Smith, Caribbean Property Consultant, Tropical Connections

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