The History of Tobago Lawyers Association
In 1983, a small group of lawyers under the stewardship of Attorney-at-Law, now Senior Counsel, Mr. Christo Gift, established the Tobago Lawyers Association (“T.L.A”). The Association’s inaugural executive included President Mr. Gift, Vice-President Mr. Lawrence Des Vignes, Secretary/Treasurer Mrs. Jocelyn Gift and Mr. Eric Taylor. Membership began with a mere handful of attorneys and now boasts well over forty members. From inception to present, the Association has been instrumental in developing Tobago’s legal landscape. Today, the Association continues to serve as a professional organization that is the voice for all of its members and the Tobago populace.
Past Presidents of the Tobago Lawyers Association:
Christo Gift, Senior Counsel 1983-2004
Anthony Arnold 2004-2012
Samantha Lawson 2012-2015
Dawn Palackdharry Singh 2015-present
Prior to 1983, the Scarborough Magistrate’s Court consisted of a single courtroom presided over by one Magistrate. That Magistrate was tasked with rotating among courts located at Scarborough, Roxborough and Charlotteville. The Scarborough Magistrate’s Court initially sat only four (4) days per week, Mondays to Thursdays, because on Fridays the presiding Magistrate was on rotation duty at either Roxborough or Charlotteville much to the disadvantage of litigants.
The successful lobbying of the Tobago Lawyers Association secured legislative amendments which created two (2) additional courtrooms at the Scarborough Magistrate’s Court. Thanks in large part to the Association, there are now three (3) courtrooms at the Scarborough Magistrate’s Court namely: the First Court, presided over by a Senior Magistrate and dedicated to criminal offences; the Second Court which handles family matters and the Third Court also known as the Petty Civil Court dedicated primarily to petty civil matters and traffic offences.
The T.L.A. was also principally responsible for critical legislative advancements which secured greater accessibility to and equality of the judicial system. One such crucial accomplishment was a legislative change mandating that all matters touching or concerning land located in Tobago be filed and conducted in Tobago rather than in Trinidad.
Likewise, probate applications were previously required to be filed in Trinidad at great inconvenience and expense to Tobagonians. The T.L.A. successfully advocated against this practice which was eventually discontinued and thankfully such transactions are now handled in Tobago.
Although there is yet to be a sitting Judge resident in Tobago, the access to justice was improved with the advent of courtrooms in Tobago that are outfitted with video-conferencing capabilities. These courtrooms facilitate Tobago litigants with greater access to sitting Judges resident in Trinidad while eliminating the added burden and expense of inter-island commute.
Court of Appeal
The T.L.A. also paved the way towards securing a more robust Court of Appeal presence in Tobago. In the Association’s formative years appeals heard in Tobago were limited to Magisterial and Petty Civil Court appeals. Resultantly, the Court of Appeal rarely conducted matters in Tobago and sat here just once per year. Upon the instigation of the T.L.A. who advocated the issue before various former Chief Justices, the Association eventually successfully persuaded the Court of Appeal of the necessity for an enhanced Court of Appeal presence in Tobago.
Thus, criminal appeals are now also heard in Tobago and the Court of Appeal’s sitting on the island has increased from once to twice per year. However, the Association continues to lobby for the use of video conferencing capabilities at the Court of Appeal similar to that at the High Court to further increase Tobagonians’ access to the appeal process.
Enhanced Law Library Services
The T.L.A. protested the lack of adequate library services for the attorneys practicing in Tobago and worked assiduously with Trinidad counterparts to upgrade Tobago’s Law Library services to a standard almost on par with Trinidad. With the cooperation of the judiciary, the Attorneys at Law now have access to law text books, indices and various other research materials at the Tobago law Library.
Registrar General’s Office
Previously Tobago companies and businesses had to be registered in Trinidad. The T.L.A. agitated for the registration of such companies and businesses at the Tobago Registrar General’s Office. Today this is a reality.
These were frequently held in Tobago with the sitting Chief Justices or sitting Judges. These meetings were used to highlight our grievances with the justice system and resulted in resolution of our concerns that arose from time to time.
The current executive has continued the mission for continued professional development of the Attorneys practicing in Tobago. The Association has facilitated seminars on Advocacy, Evidence and was one of the first to host training on the Criminal Proceedings Rules which are to take effect by April, 2017. The Association has also assisted in organizing training to help keep members compliant with requirements under the Financial Intelligence Unit. The Association also met with the Tobago House of Assembly and gave feedback on proposed Constitutional Reforms intended to affect Tobago.
The Association has also reached out to the wider community by appearing on Channel 5’s morning programme and its HI 5 segment with Senior Counsel, Mr. Gift giving general information which would have been of interest to the general public.
The Association forms a conduit by which our statutory body, the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago ensures communication with its members based in Tobago.