Courtenay Griffiths QC, on graduation day from the University of Coventry.
Avia Collinder, Outlook Writer
Courtenay Griffiths has little use for diplomacy and smooth talk in his career. The Queen's Counsel, one of the most senior advocates in London's criminal court, more popularly known as the Old Bailey, is uniquely positioned to comment on the nature of the security problems which affect Jamaicans both in the United Kingdom and in his country of birth, Jamaica.
In doing so, he dishes out some hard truths.
The tough-talking lawyer is also an expert in international criminal law, and has written and lectured extensively on all aspects of the criminal justice system.
Recently in Jamaica for the annual Norman Manley Lecture of the Norman Manley Law School, University of the West Indies, which aims to highlight issues of national and international public concern, Griffiths suggested that, in seeking to rein in the problems of crime locally, Jamaicans should not overlook the impact of poverty on inner-city communities and the relative absence of the educational opportunities which could break the cycle of deprivation.
In an interview with Outlook, he said, "In Jamaica, it is a fact that unemployment affects certain population groups, especially in the inner city. It is inevitable that this degree of deprivation will be reflected in behaviour."
In London, he says, there are Jamaican communities which are similarly affected by gun culture, but a significant difference between the two societies is the response of the criminal justice system.
Jamaica's international image
"Jamaica has an image internationally of seeking to crack down largely on gun-related crime. Its constabulary has an image of brutality and total disregard for human rights. At the same time, the force is an underserved and under-financed state institution."
The advocate has a particular interest in civil liberties. Among the many notable cases in which Courtenay has been involved, he regards the following as being the most noteworthy: R v Silcott & others (The Blakelock murder trial); the Brighton Bombing in which a bomb was detonated in the section of the Grand Hotel where many politicians, including then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were staying for the British Conservative Party conference. The noteworthy cases also include the Harrods Bombing - a blast that killed six persons in 1983; the Canary Wharf bombing, the Risley Riot; the Dartmoor Riot; Johnson, Davis and Rowe; Goswell v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis (for a while, this case recorded the highest award of damages made by a jury against a police force); and the Damilola Taylor murder trial. There were also R v White and Hanson (the murder of the Chelsea banker) and R v Brown and Carty (the murder of the city solicitor).
Nowadays, he is constantly in The Hague in Amsterdam representing ex-Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who has been charged with crimes against humanity. Griffiths is the lead counsel of the new defence team appointed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone to represent Taylor.
Taylor, who was president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, is being tried on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law committed during Sierra Leone's conflict, including murdering and mutilating civilians, using women and girls as sex slaves, and abducting both adults and children and making them perform forced labour or become fighters.
Taylor is charged on the basis of his alleged role as a major backer of the Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and close association with a second warring faction, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.
Courtenay Griffiths was born in Kingston, Jamaica, into a large family which went to England in his early years. He was the son of a poor carpenter and the first member of his family to attend university.
"Coming from such a background, it was easy to develop an inferiority complex when dealing with colleagues. However, I have always had a great deal of confidence," the lawyer states.
Between age 11 and 18 1/2, Courtenay was the only black child in the schools he attended.
"In such an environment, I was forced to come to terms with myself. It came to me that racism should not be allowed to prevent me from reaching goals. Racism is the problem of the racists and is often used to distract individuals from their true purpose."
At 18, he left Coventry where he grew up, to study law at the London School of Economics, and was called to the Bar directly from university. He acquired, he said, an essential understanding of political and social context to the practice of criminal law during time spent as legal assistant to the Greater London Council's Police Support Committee, and as a Revson Fellow at the City College in New York.
Returning from the United States, he practised in West Yorkshire and other suburban areas, where the sight of a black man in a white wig and black gown often generated looks and sentiments of amazement.
Not even the juries would listen. He would have to employ special tactics to break the ice; one favourite was:
"Members of the jury, it is me sitting here with my black face and white wig, looking for all the world like a pint of Guinness. I have a good head too."
The jury would collapse with laughter and, from thereon, things would proceed smoothly.
In his earliest years of sitting behind the white QCs in court, it struck him, he said, that few of them had any understanding of the racial dynamics affecting minorities, and he promised himself - with each travesty viewed - that he would make the effort to see that the resulting miscarriage of justice would be repeated decreasingly.
Today, he chairs the Public Affairs Committee of the Bar Council, and worked for several years as chair of its Race Relations Committee.
As lead attorney on many subsequent cases involving minorities, he has been able to keep his pledge to defend them.
He is also enthused about representing Charles Taylor, who deserves a good defence, he states, in a court in which the normal rules of evidence do not apply and in which witnesses are paid to speak.
It is a challenge worthy of the advocate who says that, although Jamaica is a small island state, its best and brightest can make their mark on the world in international tribunals and other similar fora.
Courtenay Griffiths is married to Angela, a woman of mixed Sierra Leonian and Irish extract.
She has come, he says, to understand that "who I represent in court does not have a great deal to do with who I am. I am able to distance myself from what I do."
The lawyer is father to children Donna, Paul, Marcus and Adam.
Griffiths is an adherent of the Rastafarian faith. "You don't have to grow your hair to be a Rasta. It's in your heart, not how you look," he states. He is a passionate collector of Jamaican music with a collection dating back to the 1950s.
He believes that the enormous creativity exhibited by Jamaicans in music and other areas in less than one century after the abolition of slavery bodes well for the culture.
"We are a small island with a population of just over two million and we have come to influence the whole world."
Griffiths strongly believes that international criminal law will be one of the expanding areas of law in the 21st century and advises those who wish to follow his example to consider the field.
Where the matter of local crime is concerned, the solution lies not in talent - of which we have plenty - but in political will and the resources - for want of which we appear to be beggared.
"(Lack of) Education is often the root of this kind of deprivation (poverty which leads to crime). The government here does not appear to have the level of resources to provide the lift that youngsters need," he laments.