Speaker of the House Julian Willock and Deputy Speaker Neville Smith have withdrawn their request for an injunction to prevent three Commission of Inquiry lawyers from working in the territory until the conclusion of a court case scheduled to start in October, according to the speakers’ attorney.
“The attorney general failed to give our client the authority to proceed; thus we had no alternative but to withdraw,” Richard Rowe of Silk Legal wrote in a message to the Beacon yesterday. “We are taking further steps. … You will know in time.”
The injunction request, filed on the speakers’ behalf by Silk Legal, had sought to bar the three lawyers from work associated with the COI for now, Mr. Willock said at a press conference last month announcing the plan to seek the injunction.
At the time, Mr. Willock explained that Mr. 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 practising 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.”
At the time, he added that he had 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. Mr. Willock’s website, Virgin Islands News Online, reported last week that the speaker now plans to take legal action against Attorney General Dawn Smith after she failed to respond to the request to support the injunction attempt.
Although Ms. Smith reportedly didn’t support the injunction, a July letter obtained by the Beacon suggests that she does agree with the speakers’ position that the three COI lawyers need to be admitted to practise law in the territory.
The letter is Ms. Smith’s response to VI-based Queen’s Counsel Michael Fay, who wrote to Police Commissioner Mark Collins and copied her on June 23.
Expressing a similar position as Mr. Willock, Mr. Fay alleged that the three COI lawyers — COI Counsel Bilal Rawat and solicitors Rhea Harrikissoon and Andrew King — have been illegally “practising law in the territory, willfully pretending to be legal practitioners, and/or making use of a name, title or description implying that they are entitled to be recognised or act as a legal practitioner.” The letter also alleged that they have been practising law without a legal practice certificate. Their actions amount “to a criminal offence” under sections 15 and 18 of the Legal Profession Act, according to the Queen’s Counsel.
In a response to Mr. Fay dated July 8, Ms. Smith appeared to agree in part, stating, “The law is clear” that a barrister or solicitor appointed by the attorney general under Section 13 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act should be admitted to practise law in the territory.
“It is my position that Bilal Rawat, Andrew King and Rhea Harrikissoon should be admitted to practise in the Virgin Islands if they are to perform duties as counsel and solicitors to the Commission of Inquiry established under the COI [Act] on [ Jan. 19],” she wrote. “They have now applied to be so admitted, albeit belatedly.”
The AG also said she would not object to the applications, adding, “It is regrettable that the applications for admission were not made and dealt with before Mr. Rawat, Mr. King and Ms. Harrikissoon began their work for the Commission of Inquiry.”
Neither Ms. Smith nor Mr. Fay responded to requests for comment this week.
VI defence attorney Stephen Daniels took the opposite view of Ms. Smith and Mr. Fay.
In an opinion piece widely circulated on Monday, Mr. Daniels stated that because the attorneys were appointed by the AG under section 13 of the COI Act, section 19 (I) (a) of the Legal Profession Act is triggered, “and the trio are considered law officers within the AG’s office pursuant to section 95 (4) of the Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007.”
According to section 19 (2) of the Legal Profession Act, they are “now deemed to be the holder of a valid practising certificate and to be legal practitioners,” wrote Mr. Daniels, who is not directly involved in the case.
“It is my humble view that there is no need for the trio to make a formal application to be admitted to the bar for the purposes of the COI,” he wrote. “However, once the COI is over, the deeming proviso of section 19 (2) of the said act would not apply to them, and they would now need to be admitted to the bar in order to pursue private work in the territory.”
When the COI resumed hearings this week, members did not mention the injunction attempt or the court case.