Speaker of the House Julian Willock and Deputy Speaker Neville Smith are seeking an injunction preventing three Commission of Inquiry lawyers from working in the territory until the conclusion of a court case scheduled to start in October, Mr. Willock announced during a press conference yesterday.
The request, filed on the speakers’ behalf by Virgin Islands law firm Silk Legal, seeks to bar British lawyers Bilal Rawat, Andrew King and Rhea Harrikissoon from work associated with the COI for now, Mr. Willock said.
During the press conference, Mr. Willock explained that Silk Legal attorney Richard Rowe asked COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom on the tenth day of the COI whether the three lawyers were admitted to practise law in the territory.
Sir Gary responded in the negative and said they didn’t need to be admitted in order to carry out their duties. Nevertheless, the commissioner then directed the lawyers to make an application to be admitted.
Mr. Willock said he then instructed Silk Legal to file an
objection on behalf of himself and Mr. Smith claiming that because the lawyers weren’t admitted, they had been practicing law in the territory in breach of the Legal Profession Act 2015.
“Their side raised the issue as to whether [Mr. Smith] and I had standing to make an objection,” Mr. Willock said. “However, the court ruled last month that we did have standing and set a trial date for the case in October of this year. We had also raised other concerns, which I am not at liberty to disclose at this point, as the matter is live before the court.”
Last week, he added, he asked Silk Legal to request the injunction barring the three UK lawyers from doing any COI work until the court rules following the October trial.
In the coming trial, Mr. Willock said, he seeks clarification as to whether or not lawyers who have not been admitted to practise law in the VI can act as solicitors in commissions of inquiry and if they are able to carry out legal duties in relation to the COI.
“No one is above the law,” he said.
Mr. Rowe and his Silk Legal colleague Daniel Fligelstone-Davies also spoke at the press conference.
“These proceedings are an incredibly important part and step in developing not only this jurisdiction’s jurisprudence but that of the region’s as it relates to commissions and tribunals of inquiries and the constitution thereof,” Mr. Fligelstone-Davies said.
He added that the court’s recent ruling that the speakers have standing to make an objection was also important.
“There was a lack of jurisprudence in respect to who can object to someone being called to the bar or being admitted to practise as a solicitor,” Mr. Fligelstone-Davies said. “That judgment was among the first of its kind within this jurisdiction and within the region.”
Mr. Rowe said the team is not seeking to discontinue the COI, but instead to “discontinue the unlawful and criminal practice of having attorneys who are not called to the bar to be participating in the inquiry.”
He also levelled other criticisms at the commission.
“These English men and women do not understand the history of the Virgin Islands. Their culture is quite different from ours and to judge us by their standards without having a clear appreciation for the history and progress of the Virgin Islands would be a fallacy,” he said. “We will demand to have the right to cross-examine and bring rebuttal evidence.”
He also warned that the inquiry could damage the territory’s economy and lead to a “wholesale takeover” by the United Kingdom, leaving the VI “with no legislature, the governor ruling from top and bringing foreign civil servants to head departments.”
Asked how much Silk Legal has been paid for its services in the COI, Mr. Rowe said it has received only a $30,000 deposit so far.
“There is a lot at stake,” he added. “The minimal fees we are charging are insignificant to the losses that we as a people will suffer.”
Attempts to reach COI representatives yesterday were not immediately successful.