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Sybil Hibbert: More than just a court reporter

Published:Friday | March 20, 2015 | 3:00 AM
Hibbert

Below is an obituary for Sybil Hibbert, former journalist who died last Friday following a brief illness.

DESPITE HER job title, Sybil Hibbert was more than just someone who gave details of the business conducted in the island's legislature and judicature. During her 17 years as The Gleaner's court reporter, she made the public aware of how their elected representatives carried out the affairs of state - for better or worse - behind the closed doors of Parliament.

She also gave the newspaper's readers a gallery seat at some of the most memorable cases to have been tried in the country's courts. Having undergone the painstaking task of sifting through the often-voluminous evidence and witness statements, the complexities of trial motions and the intricacies of judges' rulings, she was able to bring to the public the facts with unembellished clarity.

When Hibbert began court reporting for The Gleaner in 1958, she was among a group of journalists trained to use a machine newly introduced to Jamaica, which recorded judicial proceedings using Pitman shorthand. The reporters would rotate their note-taking in 15-minute segments, typing and then submitting the transcript after an hour.

 

'hansard writers'

 

Known as 'Hansard writers', at the time, after the brand name of the machine, the journalists had to be able to type at least 200 words per minute in order to accurately document the often highly technical subject matter, while at the same time, contend with the usual fiery debates and contentious disputes that are characteristic of the House of Parliament. Hibbert's expertise at this duty, with her combination of precision and speed, earned her respect from lawyers and judges alike.

After six years as a Hansard writer, Hibbert was promoted to senior court reporter at the Supreme Court, where the high quality of her work won her accolades among her peers in the press as well as the 1970 Seprod Journalism Award for her outstanding court commentaries.

Married to Assistant Commissioner of Police Isadore 'Dick' Hibbert (now retired), and the mother of a daughter, Karen, and two sons, Hugh and Barry, Hibbert was born in Kingston on August 21, 1933. Prior to becoming a journalist, she had worked in the civil

service, and at one time was secretary to then Minister of Education Florizel Glasspole, who would later become governor general.

She began her professional

life as a teacher at Boston College, a private institution that was located on Maxfield Avenue, following her graduation from Immaculate Conception School in St Andrew. At school, Hibbert had shown an affinity for Latin and the modern languages, which was to serve her well later when she started her court reporting career.

On her retirement from the Gleaner in 1975, Hibbert founded her own paralegal company, Verbatim Services Ltd, compiling an impressive list of clients that was to include prime ministers, government agencies and major law firms. More recently, she was the author of a weekly column in the Jamaica Observer titled 'Crimes that rocked the nation', which gave a retrospective view of mostly sensational court cases that came about in the aftermath of headline-grabbing criminal offences.

While no longer on the front line, Hibbert continued to keep her finger on the pulse of happenings in the island's courts, and was a regular guest columnist for The Gleaner. Her analyses of events, based on her knowledge of the court system and her years of experience as an observer of scores of trials, continued to attract attention from fellow commentators, and she was considered the voice of reason amid impassioned public debates on the presentation of cases by prosecutors and defence lawyers, the outcome of trials, and the decisions made by judges and juries.

In one such column, Hibbert commented on controversial actions taken by Justice Lensley Wolfe during the Kraal murder trial of Senior Superintendent of Police Reneto Adams and five colleagues in the Home Circuit Court, and on the ensuing fallout from the not-guilty verdict that was rendered on February 11, 2005.

Hibbert remarked that it was incumbent upon a presiding judge to take full control over proceedings in his courtroom, and also to maintain law and order, and to be respected by all who sat in the house of law. She also pointed out emphatically that, despite the multiplicity of problems that pervaded Jamaica's justice system, 'no trial by radio, TV, or in the print media can take the place of a trial by jury'.