Privy Council dismisses Layne’s appeal

Former member of the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) Joseph Ewart Layne on Monday had his appeal to overturn a 2013 court ruling in Grenada that disallowed him from practicing law there, dismissed by the London-based Privy Council.  

In October 2013, Layne applied to the Supreme Court of Grenada for admission to practice as an attorney-at-law, but when his application for admission came before then Justice Margaret Price Findlay, the argument focused on “good character”.

While there was no question as to his current “good standing”, Justice Price-Findlay denied him entry to the bar; citing concern was for the reputation of the legal profession in the eyes of the public.

Joseph Ewart layne (file photo)

Layne a former deputy defense minister and operational commander of the People’s Revolutionary Army, was among 17-members of the PRG, convicted of the execution-style murder of revolutionary prime minister Maurice Bishop and eleven of his cabinet members in 1983.

He along with the others later referred to as the “Grenada 17”, in 1986 were tried convicted and sentenced to death in a court, alleged to have been inappropriately set up. But his sentence was declared unconstitutional and he was resentenced by Justice Francis Belle of the Supreme Court of the Eastern Caribbean, who, having considered the evidence, sentenced him to 40 years’ imprisonment.

Layne served 26 years of his sentence before he was released on September 5, 2009.

While in prison, he obtained an LLB (Honours) and LLM from London University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Accounting from Oxford Brookes University in the UK with first class honours. On 6 September 2013, Layne was awarded the Legal Education Certificate of Merit from the Hugh Wooding Law School of the University of the West Indies.

The Court of Appeal of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court later upheld Justice Price-Findlay’s ruling and Layne further appealed to the Privy Council, Grenada’s highest court.

At the Privy Council on Monday, a split decision of the five-member panel of judges said “the fact that Layne is now a man of good standing in the community is certainly a necessary requirement for the good character condition for admission to the Bar of Grenada to be satisfied, but it is not in itself enough.

“Public confidence in the profession had also to be considered. The judge’s assessment was that there was sufficient risk that it would be damaged by acceding to Mr. Layne’s application and so that facet of the good character condition was not met,” the Privy Council said.

The Privy Council therefore concluded, “there was no reviewable error in her [Justice Price-Findlay] decision on this matter”.

Queens Counsel Edward Fitzgerald, together with Tim Nesbitt QC, Amanda Clift-Matthews, Ruggles Ferguson and Cajeton Hood, all of whom appeared pro bono, represented Layne.

Grenada Attorney General, the defendant in this case, informed the Privy Council that he did not intend to defend the matter before the Board.

Lord Sumption, who voted to dismiss the appeal before the Privy Council noted that the common law has a number of expressions which are used as if they were terms of art, but which have never been clearly defined.

“One of them is “of good character”. This protean phrase has been employed in two particular contexts. One is the admissibility of evidence of the “good character” of a party or witness in civil and criminal litigation. The other is the condition of “good character” required by statute of those aspiring to some office or occupation calling for high levels of public trust or integrity.”

He said murder is among the most serious offences in the criminal calendar.

“The elements of the offence presuppose the absence of any of the mitigating factors which might have justified a conviction for manslaughter. Some lesser offences may become less relevant with the lapse of time, especially if they were committed at a time when the offender was young and immature.

“But without ruling out the possibility of an exceptional case justifying a different outcome, I find it difficult to imagine that a criminal conviction for murder could ever be consistent with the status of a barrister,” he added.

Lord Kerr in his dissenting view at the Privy Council, said a judge confronted by an application under section 17 must decide whether, at the time of making the application, the applicant is of good character. “That assessment must be made by the judge alone. He or she may take into account the impact which past misbehaviour or criminal conduct on the part of the applicant might have on the reputation of the legal profession, but this is a matter for the judgment of the judge, without speculation as to how members of the public might react to the applicant’s admission.

“The judge must not approach the question on the basis that there are some species of past behaviour which are so egregious as to eliminate the possibility of the applicant ever establishing that he is of good character.”

Lord Kerr said that on this account, “I cannot agree with the judge’s view that the appellant’s position can be compared to a practising lawyer convicted of similar crimes of which the appellant was found guilty. “The suggestion that the judge must be satisfied that the public would as opposed to should have confidence in the candidate’s suitability is misconceived. A lawyer in practice convicted of serious crime rightly forfeits the confidence of the public.

“But a man convicted of serious crime while young and who has demonstrated beyond peradventure his repentance and rehabilitation stands in an entirely different place,” he added.