Wed | Jan 23, 2019

Arlene Harrison-Henry - the woman behind the law

Published:Monday | February 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Cathy Risden, Lifestyle Writer

Hailing from the small community of Bailey's Vale, three miles out of Port Maria, is Jamaica's first female public defender, Arlene Harrison-Henry. An exemplary woman, Harrison-Henry believes all her life experiences have prepared her for the post.

Recalling her most memorable childhood experiences, Harrison-Henry said she used to help her grandmother on her farm and spent valuable time with her girlfriends on Pagee beach swimming, frolicking and just having fun as children. "It's always a group of us. My grandmother did not just allow family members, but accommodated friends as well, and said that as long as we stayed in that group we were allowed to go out - all of whom are still my close friends today."

Losing her father at a young age, Harrison-Henry had to rely on her mother and other family members for support with whom she has a solid bond. Her relatives, and in particular a special aunt, played an important role in raising the family. "She would do the most delicious fish for us before we went back to Bailey's Vale. She cooks the best escoveitched fish," Henry said excitingly. "In 1980, she left for Canada where her children had gone ahead of her," said Henry.

Real Inspiration

"My hero is my mother. She lost her husband when she was a young woman and she took over the role of mother and father of three young people. And without murmur and complaint she raised us. She lived her life selflessly for her children. She is now in her 90s and I have watched her - she is not only physically strong, but mentally tough. And I respect her tremendously for all that she did. She was always there and I love her dearly," she expressed.

Henry said that her father played a major role in her success today. He always emphasised education. "My father was a firm believer in education provided by the Roman Catholics for girls. And he insisted that my sister and I attend schools owned and operated by nuns, because he had a firm belief that, not only would they educate you properly but they will train you to be decent ladies. And this is something he said repeatedly.

Passion for Law

Drawn to law from a tender age, Henry said that she used to follow cases reported in The Gleaner and would travel to Spanish Town Court to listen. "There was a particular preliminary enquiry going on in Spanish Town and I used to jump on the bus and go to listen to presentations of the case and the proceedings in the court, and then I started followed cases," she disclosed.

"If you should see my résumé, it's as though I had prepared myself for the office of Jamaica's Public Defender. If you see my life experience and my involvement in human rights or something, I had an interested in it from early," she confessed.

After graduating from Immaculate Conception High School, Henry went on to pursue her bachelor's degree in political science at the University of the West Indies. Aiming for higher heights, Henry decided to further her education by completing a one-year teaching programme and doing a master's degree in political science and then got a leave of absence to go and do law. During that year, she said she finally made up her mind to pursue her passion for law. "Doing political science put me in good stead because I entered into the faculty of law as a direct entrant. So I went in the second year at Cave Hill because I had a first degree with good grades and was in good standing, but it did not mean I was exempt from the first year, it just meant I did the three-year course in two years," she concluded.

Transitioning from law school, Henry said, was very easy. "After graduation, my first employment was with the Government of Jamaica. I was the deputy clerk at the Petty Session Court in Half-Way Tree. And soon after I was offered an opportunity to work with the late Justice Carl Rattray, and I grabbed it."

Through that experience, Henry said she saw the law from a different perspective. "I saw the operation from a social-policy point of view. And from that time I started to work on projects that involved reforming our system of justice."

What keeps her going!

Henry said that within the law, Rattray mentored and inspired her. "He was a visionary and someone who did not hesitate to share his knowledge. He was undoubtedly my role model and mentor. There were others, like Dennis Daley, the man who lead the way in developing the jurisprudence of compensation for victims injured by agents of the State. He made himself available not only to me but to many others for consultation," she concluded.

One of Harrison-Henry's mantras is to 'live and let live', which she defined as not keeping anybody down, and moved further to explain that it doesn't mean she is going to close a blind eye to wrong, but not try to crush anybody.

The mother of two sons and an orchid lover emphasised that she lives a simple uncomplicated life "I have two boys and I am very proud of them." She also nurtures and cares for her two dogs, Mary and Ruth, and her adorable cat.

"I love being outside in the yard working in my garden on my orchids. I am a member of the Jamaican Orchid Society; it's just an absolutely fabulous organisation with a wealth of expert orchid growers."

"I love to go to the country. I love all kinds of music, including but not limited to classic, soul, country, some reggae, and reggae roots such as Merritone music - every once in a while I go to waterfalls and soak in the music. It is very energising; it's just that I haven't got enough time to go there.

A simple yet powerful woman of God ended: "All persons are equal before God and the law; no one is above the law and no one beneath the law."