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A sterling example

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 13, 2024

The passing of Michael de la Bastide, former chief justice and first president of the Caribbean Court of Justice, signified the end of an era in Trinidad and Tobago or even Caribbean jurisprudence. Archbishop Jason Gordon says he was concerned about mercy at the end of his days. However, what stood out during his active years as an attorney was his commitment to law and justice.

De la Bastide was a successor of a legal tradition that began with John Nihell (1797-1808), Trinidad’s first chief justice, and the other chief justices of the 19th century [Ashton Warner (1818-1830), George Scotland (1832-1849), Joseph Needham (1870-1885), and John Gorrie (1886-1892)], and Sir Hugh Wooding and Ellis Clarke of the 20th century.

Gorrie fought to ensure justice for the poor. He understood how laws could be used by the powerful to serve nefarious purposes. The Colonial Office recalled him to England because he rubbed the ruling class the wrong way. When he left the island, a grateful people went to the wharf in their thousands to bid him farewell.

Wooding, the first African chief justice of the island, “believed firmly in the dignity of the legal profession”. He turned down a seat in the House of Lords to serve at home. He postulated that “the Black Commonwealth wants and is seeking human understanding, the chance of an equal place in the community of nations”. He did not let his personal ambition detract from his national obligations.

De la Bastide followed in the footsteps of Warner, our third chief justice, who studied at Cambridge University before proceeding to Lincoln’s Inn to complete his legal education. On February 6, 1806, he became a barrister before returning to Trinidad where he was appointed chief justice in 1818.

De la Bastide read law at Oxford University, a sister university of Cambridge University, before he proceeded to Gray’s Inn to continue his legal studies. He was called to the Bar in 1961, after which he worked in the Attorney General’s office. Thereafter, he founded and established the law chambers of de la Bastide & Jacelon where he was a senior partner until he was appointed chief justice in 1995.

When de la Bastide practised law in the 1960s, there were about 100 practising lawyers in Trinidad. Lawyers competed fiercely but conducted themselves in the highest tradition of the law. They respected one another and expected the same from their colleagues. He had a profound respect for the profession. Today, there are about 6,000 lawyers practising in Trinidad and Tobago; one is not too sure they respect their profession as much as he did.

De la Bastide honed his craft as a constitutional lawyer. He became a member of the Wooding Constitutional Commission in 1971 and the Hyatali Constitution Commission from 1987 to 1990. His appointment to the Caribbean Court of Justice was the apogee of his career. He worked hard and achieved much.

When the Wooding Constitution penned its final report in 1974, it observed that a majority of the citizens saw government as “they” and the people as “we”. There was a disconnect between the ordinary people—the servants—and those who considered themselves the masters. The Commission recommended that “the processes of government need to be opened up so that the citizen can be made aware of what is taking place and that institutions should be set up enabling him to participate without undue difficulty”.

In 2007, the National Association for the Empowerment of African People held a constitutional conference at La Joya. Dr Lloyd Barnett, one of the finest constitutional lawyers in the Caribbean, delivered a riveting speech on the role that “the people” should play in making our constitutions. He elaborated on three aspects of that participation: the role of people in constitution making; the status of people in constitution management; and the impact on the people of constitution manipulation.

This brings me to the farce that is parading around the country as a constitution-making body. Hastily put together, unprepared for its important undertaking, and led by a conveyancer, it can contribute nothing meaningful to constitution making in the island. What can one do when a people are so disrespected by their government?

We do our people a disservice when we compare the legal calibre of those legal minds that went before us and those who are listening to what “the people” have to say about their constitution. How do we go from de la Bastide to Barry Sinanan? How do we unleash a committee on our people without preparing them for such an important exercise?

De la Bastide believed true independence rests on the independence of each arm of the State: legislative, executive and judicial. He felt that without judicial independence from the Privy Council, true independence was not possible. Such was his integrity that NJAC, in 1981, vowed that if it won the election it would elect him president.

Michael de la Bastide has left us a rich legacy of legal excellence and empathetic listening. We do him a disservice when we conduct our business as if there is no precedence for greatness and achievement. His light-hearted approach to life and thorough commitment to his profession are qualities that our professional men and women should follow. This is the impeccable legacy that he has bequeathed to us.

Go forward in peace, thou good and faithful servant.

—Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.

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