A Conflicted Society: Dancehall culture and the legal profession
Let me start by saying that the pictures of the females Mr Champagnie refers to as law faculty students, that have now gone viral on social media and mass media, as a result of the public protest and campaign of Mr. Champagnie, were somewhat prurient and accurately captured one aspect of our dancehall culture. Further I fear that Mr Champagnie’s protest also represents a widely held view of the legal fraternity and members of the society.
At the time of reading Senior Counsel’s letter I did not know the context in which the pictures were taken, much less published. Based on my experience as a law student however, I am aware that there is a law society tradition of putting on artistic cultural presentations. On the face of it, it appeared as if these pictures were one such presentation and the students were dressed in character.
I distinctly remember participating in one such cultural presentation at the law faculty in Barbados where we did a Jamaican dance hall dance where some of the male students had on mesh merinos and some female students may well have been similarly scantily clad. While writing this article it has come to the fore that the publication of the pictures on the law society’s Instagram page was in furtherance of their artistic cultural presentation.
In short, I have no issue with the law society putting on a dancehall themed cultural presentation and law students dressed in character in promotion of/or as a part of the cultural presentation. If my judgment is poor and it is in fact not appropriate I have made a mistake, despite my years of experience at the Bar. What then of young law students who are expressing their creativity and demonstrating confidence in self and their culture by participating in a cultural presentation that forms a traditional part of the law society’s activities? Could it be at the highest that these young adults simply made a mistake?
Having gotten the factual issues out of the way there are some underlying general fundamental questions that have been raised by the position and public pronouncements of senior counsel.
- Is the practice of law reserved for only certain classes of the Jamaican society?
- Is it that persons who are traditionally depicted as participating in the dancehall culture, classed as the “lower class” and not worthy of aspiring to become Attorneys?
- What role does senior counsel at the Bar in general have in guiding students and young counsel, and what is the most appropriate forum to so do?
- Why is being dressed in dancehall regalia considered to be vulgar, disgraceful and reprehensible?
- Is it impossible to boldly embrace one’s culture while being apart of a profession that is deep seated in eurocentric values?
- Why in this tropical climate are Attorneys who practice in the Supreme Court required to wear suits and on top of those suits robes?
In exploring these questions I am guided by the:
- Legal Profession Act section 6(1) that states that a person shall be qualified for enrolment if he holds a qualifying certificate and satisfies the Council that he has attained the age of twenty-one years, is not an alien, and is of good character, and the
- The Legal Profession Act ( Canon of Professional Ethics) states that “an Attorney shall at all times maintain the honour and dignity of the profession and shall, abstain from behaviour which may lend to discredit the profession of which he is a member”, and an
- “A n Attorney appearing before the Court shall at all times be attired in such manner as may be prescribed or agreed by the proper Authorities and as may befit the dignity of the Court.”
The Legal Profession Act and the Canons however must be read in the context of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms which among other things guarantees the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom from discrimination on the ground of being male or female; or race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion or political opinions.
We understand that because courts are the point of immediate contact between society and a Government’s laws, we understand that Judges’ attire and the Court in general is used to portray an image of dignity, strength and authority, that is projected on their citizens. If you want to act the part, you have to look the part. Dress code is a part of dignity and professionalism with little exception. The close nexus between profession and dress is visible all around the globe from time immemorial.
If the above rational is accepted one can readily understand how the same reasoning can be extended to lawyers, as lawyers that practice in the Courts are de jure ministers of justice. It is important to note that the requirement for proper etiquette and decorum is properly limited to where Attorneys as ministers of justice interact with members of the public in that capacity. In fact, the Legal Council has published guidelines as to how Attorneys are to be dressed when appearing in Court. In addition to the guidelines set by the General Legal Council there are, prescribed by custom and tradition, rules that inform how Attorneys are to be attired in open court. (Details of accepted dress in the Courtroom can be found in a paper prepared by Andrea Martin-Swaby Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions.)
We are required to wear suits of a certain colour a bib and a robe/gown. Now as a tropical island that is facing climate change, that has brought on warmer than usual temperatures what can justify or explain the need to dress in such an incredible manner? Is this with a view to demonstrate the dignity, strength and authority of the legal system at the expense of good sense? It is interesting to note that when appearing before the Law Lords in the Privy Council which is a significantly colder climate the Law Lords wear business suits while Attorneys from Jamaica dress in robes which is not required.
What of students desirous of becoming an Attorney who are not bound by any written or unwritten rules. They are according to the Legal Profession Act required to be of good character. Is Mr Champagnie asserting that persons who are seen on social media or otherwise, in dancehall regalia, not of good character? There is a decision of recent vintage that addressed the issue of what is good character. It was a case where a law student who had two previous convictions for being in possession of cocaine in one instance and importing cocaine on the other. The concern was whether he was now of good character and whether his admission to the Bar would adversely affect the reputation of the legal profession. The Council found that the law student was fully rehabilitated and did not pose any undue risk to the public and would not adversely affect the reputation of the profession.
If we were to apply this decision then Mr Champagnie by his utterances is suggesting, that pictures of female students in dancehall outfits is more egregious and reprehensible than being in possession of and importing cocaine. I am sure that is not the inference Mr Champagnie would like members of the public or the students to draw.
Which now takes us to the question of fundamental rights that are guaranteed by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Article 13(3)© of the Charter provides for the freedom of expression.
The UN Special Rapporteur Ms Farida Shaheed conducted a study in 2013 on the right to the freedom indispensable for artistic expression and creativity, protected under articles 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which admittedly is a much broader statement of our right to freedom of expression. In her report among other facts and findings she stated that:
“The vitality of artistic creativity is necessary for the development of vibrant cultures and the functioning of democratic societies. Artistic expressions and creations are an integral part of cultural life, which entails contesting meanings and revisiting culturally inherited ideas and concepts. The crucial task of implementation of universal human rights norms is to prevent the arbitrary privileging of certain perspectives on account of their traditional authority, institutional or economic power, or demographic supremacy in society.(Emphasis mine) This principle lies at the heart of every issue raised in the debate over the right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity and possible limitations on that right.”
For some reason the language used by Ms Shaheed “the arbitrary privileging of certain perspectives on account of their traditional authority, institutional or economic power, or demographic supremacy in society” seems to have captured the essence of what is playing out before our eyes. Regardless of whether senior counsel recognises dancehall as a Jamaican artistic cultural expression, the fact is that it is. I am no cultural guru or Tzar I am just relying on the fact that Reggae was in 2018 inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (For the purposes of this discussion I am suggesting that dancehall forms a part of reggae music.)
Our Charter did not stop at protecting the right to freedom of expression it went further in Article 13(3)(i) protecting the manner in which the freedom of expression is to be implemented. The right is to be implemented without any discrimination of any kind, such as race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion or political opinions.
As Senior Counsel is one of the most visible advocates for and defender of the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence for persons accused of criminal offences he should not make short shrift of the right to freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination. Constitutional rights do not stop at the feet of those who are accused of committing criminal offences.
As a citizen of Jamaica and moreso as a leader at the bar Mr Champagnie is entitled to have his own views and how he shares those view. His actions however are akin to naming and shaming. He who has power must treat with it in a steady and just manner. Assuming the pictures were inappropriately posted could there have been an equally if not more effective way of addressing what he deemed vulgar and reprehensible?
Chukwuemeka Cameron is a practising Attorney-at-law . Feedback can be given at email@example.com.