Staring at the ashes of the dwelling he once called home, a teenaged Michael Williams vowed two things: one he would not die poor and two, that he grow up to be a lawyer to ensure that others do not have to go through the various human right violations that are a daily occurrence in the inner city.
Fast forward some thirty plus years to December 2014 and a more triumphant scene has never unfolded in a tiny courtroom as Williams took his oath to uphold the honour and dignity of the profession before his wife, daughter, friends, legal luminaries and last but by no means least before an overjoyed mother who silently cried as she witnessed her son’s childhood dream come through.
To say it has been a long and arduous journey would be an understatement. His was no walk in the park and straight line to success because the pitfalls were many. However he not only overcame but like a phoenix, rose to the top of his game and in less than a year after being called to the bar, is the most recognisable face and figure from the Norman Manley Law School graduating class of 2014, thanks to a national enquiry that propelled him to popularity in a way that not even he the consummate dreamer, could ever have imagined.
We were curious to figure out why he chose law of all the career paths when he clearly could have chosen practically anything else as a profession. “I always knew without fail that I wanted to be a lawyer. In 1983 the Gleaner published an article about my family being burnt out of Warreika Hills in the October 30, 1980 election. “And it was instructive that at age 16, the reporter, Arthur Kitchen, who himself later became a lawyer, found it important to emphasise that I said that I wanted to be a lawyer some day.”
People’s rights are often trampled upon. I grew up in inner-city communities where there were constant raids by the police; citizens being carted off in wagons; citizens having disputes with each other and I noticed from my reading of history that law was the main social instrument that determined whether a person was bonded or free, master or slave. I also noticed that the law was the instrument for behaviour regulation and modification and at a very young age in second form, I was reading philosophers like Aristotle and Vladimir Lenin and the latter’s work ‘On the State’ was pretty influential.”
Described as passionate, intense, ‘stick-to-itive’ and reliable, this young man has achieved beyond his wildest dreams in terms of academics and status. Michael Williams is a interesting combination of virtues and vices, all borne out of particular experiences in particular places at particular time spaces. It may seem philosophical but that is who this individual is. In other words, he is a very complex human being.
It has been a long road for him with many winding turning, not to mention numerous potholes. “Doing six years in Moscow, earning what is essentially a degree in Comparative and Public International Law and coming home, being qualified to practice where my degree was obtained but not being able to practice in my homeland, that was a tough pill to swallow. “To date I still think it is unfair how the system allows deputy clerks with no legal background or training to ‘practice’ in the Resident Magistrate Court, yet someone with an advance degree like myself , found it difficult to find any kind of work in the civil service. However this is now water under the bridge. I have overcome and feel immensely proud of myself to have finally gotten to this point.”
These challenges have all shaped him into the man he has become. “Every single thing that I have done in the past has informed the way I look at a matter, as I draw on my working experience in different areas of life to inform me on what is before me. For example, if a man is arrested and charged on a particular offence, as a former policeman I would look and say ‘would I have charged someone for this offence’ and based on the allegation, “does it fulfil all the ingredients required for which the man is appearing before the court?’”
As he shared with us, his legal journey has held a combination of both of highs and lows. “The highs have been appearing before such erudite justices like Justice Sykes and winning a particular point of law, especially in the Hollis v. Duncan matter “which I cannot comment on further because the matter is still before the court.
Another high – several of them – is the many satisfied clients who have thanked him for stopping their matters from proceeding to trial by rightfully convincing the Crown that its case is so weak that it will not be able to prove its case to the required standard – beyond reasonable doubt.
Williams also counts among his highs his appearance before Her Honour Judith Pusey to whom the task of most mentioned cases fall within the parishes of Kingston and St. Andrew. “There she sits daily trying to weed out the frivolous from the substantial; delivering summary judgement on matters that need not go any further; acceding to counsel’s request for mediation in appropriate cases and or circumstances; providing mediation in matters that need to be mediated on the spot and passing on those that need to be adjudicated to another court. I am in awe about how she does this. She is the people’s judge and the court where there is never a dull day.”
Arguably the biggest high in his career so far has got to be his involvement in the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry. “It propelled me into the limelight; gave me a face and provided me with tremendous marketability. Lawyers are restricted in this jurisdiction from advertising in a particular way so to be on people’s TV over a 8 month period is tremendous marketing. It was baptism by fire.”
The first day I appeared I was pounced upon by my learned friends, Colonel Gordon and Peter Champagnie, both of whom represented the JDF. Gordon first argument was that he heard me on the radio and that I used the word ‘atrocities’ and perhaps I should enumerate what atrocities took place. Of course I had not used the word atrocities, I had used ‘excesses’ but I invited him to keep the word if he so desired and the commission did show that there is strong evidence that agents of the state did commit atrocities and abuse of rights. Among the findings of the Commissioners are that there is evidence that agents of the state did commit serious offences, even though they could not identify any individual members of the JDF or JCF.”
Among his lows he counts is appearing before particular magistrates “very few in numbers” who are puffed up with a sense of their own importance and who take up a prosecutorial role. “You would appreciate that I cannot call names.”
So how did he stay motivated despite the many setbacks he experienced? “I had never given up the dream of one day becoming a lawyer. All that happened was that I got sidetracked into other areas. I was a journalist since high school so I continued that. The fact that I had not yet self actualise did disturb me sometimes in a profound way. I applied to Barbados writing to the registrar and was told to apply online to bypass the first year in Kingston but a friend in Barbados helped me to do a needs assessment and it showed that I would need at least US$10,000 to live in Barbados each year which I couldn’t find so the thought got shelved a little.”
The decisive moment for Williams came one day when he ran into former Director of Public Prosecutions, Kent Pantry, QC at the Terra Nova Hotel. “He was representing the Air Jamaica pilots at the time in an ongoing dispute with Air Jamaica Limited and he informed me that Utech had started a law programme and they would consider my late application for the academic year 2008/2009. “It was then that I took two momentous decisions. One, to go back to school at Utech in spite of the haunting factor of the need to sit the discriminatory, unfair and dreaded entrance exam after Utech for Norman Manley Law school that non-UWI students have to sit and the other decision was to get married to my girlfriend at the time.”
Interestingly, on the domestic side of life, there are some things that even this super lawyer will admit that he is not great at. “I can do almost every domestic task that are usually said to be women’s work and I am competent at most of them but I take longer periods than most to get some of those simple domestic tasks done. Example, washing dishes, ironing a shirt etc. Common everyday things are not completed as fast as most people would do when I do them.” That aside, he thinks he is on point where it matters most – drafting legal documents and on his feet in the court room.
In five years he hopes to have a flourishing firm established with the right mix of civil matters – to include commercial no-litigious business. He eventually wants to have less of those matters which require litigation although doesn’t intend to stop accepting retainers in criminal matters.
So what’s next for this ‘young’ legal eagle? “I have never established a bucket list but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that if I found myself with the financial means, I intend to remove my parents from the current location where they currently live. That to me would be a significant advancement. Not just because of the practicality of it but also because of the symbolism of the generation that followed being able through academic achievement to assist in setting-up, albeit in their twilight years, the generation that gave me life, into a better physical situation. This is of course if they want it because my mother may decide that she’s fine where she is and the best thing is to make her and my father comfortable where they are.”
“I also want to visit Ghana. That port area that is preserved as the area from which slave ships sailed with human cargo. I’m told that the soil contains a mixture of human remains, blood and faeces etc. That would help me to be in touch with my ancestors. We, unlike all the others who came, and by ‘we’, I mean Africans, have suffered the vulgarity, the atrocity of being torn from our history so we cannot identify who were our great, great grand mother or father. 1834, the year slavery ended is only about 6 generations away. Many Africans in the Motherland are able to recite their blood lines going back 30, 40 generations. Generally, I just want to travel and see the world although I have done a tremendous amount of travelling already.”
If and when he retires one day, he hopes that his legacy is not only lasting, but more importantly, a positive one. “I want my proverbial ‘head stone’ to say ‘here lieth a passionate advocate, a champion for human rights who was very effective.” I want my clients who I have served and those who know me to know and believe that I did a very good job at protecting their interests; at protecting them from an overbearing state; at protecting the weak from the unjustly strong. They should know that I was one who made sure that the rights of his clients irrespective of their colour, race, background, class, status, creed or sexual orientation, were protected.”