The bespectacled Right Honourable Michael Anthony de la Bastide engaged in reading greets you on the front cover of his memoirs Within the Law (2021). The red spine of the hardcover text adds to this sense of profound gravitas that the reader is about to delve into. For most of us, de la Bastide remains a prolific figure in Trinidad. He is a legal luminary, who excelled in his academic studies, privatepractice, as well as serving on the Bench as the Chief Justice of Trinidad and Tobago, from 1995 to 2002 and as the first President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
Thepractice of law tends to be perceived by the layman as meticulous, pedantic, and dispassionate. Legal practitioners usually convey a sense of rigidity and strict adherence to the written mandates of the state. However, what slowly unravels within the 316 pages of thisautobiography is the hidden human dimension to the attainment and process of de la Bastide’s exemplary legal career. The unprecedented vista into the personal struggle of a young de la Bastide becomes evident, growing up in Port of Spain, the youngest of eight children, who lost his father at a tender age. One of his most painful childhood memories is being towed home from school on his brother’s bicycle, when he was only nine years old, after hearing the news that his dad had unexpectedly died. Despite this traumatic experience, de la Bastide persevered with his studies in secondary school and attained his scholarship to pursue tertiary education at Oxford, England. Contrary to stereotypical assumptions of Trinidadian society, de la Bastide’s early life was certainly not one of pampered privilege.
The academic excellence that de la Bastide accomplished in his childhood and early adult life may have seemed effortless to his peers. It is, however, less appreciated that his achievements overshadowed the hidden struggle and sacrifices that were necessary for him to attain his scholarship to read Law at Christ Church, Oxford University in 1954, and graduate from Oxford, with a Bachelor of Arts (Jurisprudence) with First Class honours in 1959. Likewise, success followed him in his professional life. He started out as Crown Counsel in the Office of the Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago, from 1961 to 1963, and then proceeded into private practice until 1995. During that period, from the 1960s to the 1990s, de la Bastide was an independent senator, from 1976 to 1981, in addition to serving on several legal commissions throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He was also the first president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago from 1987 to 1990. In 1996, he received the highest honour of the state: the Trinity Cross.
The above details concerning this expansive list of de la Bastide’s achievements could be easily sourced from the internet. While Within the Law (2021), notes these specific milestones in de la Bastide’s professional career, this personal account goes a lot further to highlight the intrigue and trepidation that frequently accompanied some of his most tumultuous legal decisions. These incidents included the legal wrangling over the attempted coup in 1990, which, along with many other traumatic incidents in our history, continues to haunt Trinidad and Tobago to the present day.
Within the Law (2021) reveals the sides of de la Bastide that the public has not seen before. We now see de la Bastide as an accomplished athlete, who was well-known as an avid footballer at St. Mary’s. He later went on to captain his lawn tennis team at Oxford and represent Trinidad and Tobago in hockey at the Pan American Games in Cali, Columbia in 1971. He also played in contract bridge tournaments around the world. Additionally, he was a member of the Management Committee of the Queens Park Cricket Club from 1969 to 1992 and served as the Vice President of that club from 1982 to 1992.
The family life of de la Bastide is also discussed at length. His deep relationship with his mother, the matriarch of the family is highlighted, especially after the untimely passing of his father. We see moments of playfulness and light-heartedness, even during tense times such as the Black Power Revolution.
Above everything else, Within the Law (2021) presents Michael de la Bastide as a human being; albeit an accomplished one, who despite his accolades remains deeply committed to preserving his humanity. It is this commitment that has allowed the former chief justice to alter his opinions on profound issues such as the death penalty. He remains cognisant that earlier in his life he adamantly supported capital punishment. Nevertheless, decades of legal experience have compelled him to reverse his opinion on this controversial issue. The former Chief Justice has also devoted a significant part of his life to humanitarian efforts, such as his support for the St. Dominic’s Home, which houses orphans and abandoned children. In my recent interview with him he said quite firmly that, “We have to grow out of this neanderthal mindset of state executions”. Moreover, de la Bastide remains a man of action, not just a man of words. A recent project of The Children’s Ark, the brainchild of his wife Simone, where some death row cells at the Frederick Street Prison were demolished and converted into a reading room was an initiative that was passionately supported by Michael de la Bastide.
His devotion to this project has been truly unwavering. The prisoners actively participated in this project and performed the demolition and repurposing of this space. Instead of languishing on death row, prisoners may now utilise this space to read to their children, (through ‘Wishing For Wings’, a programme run by the writer and activist Debbie Jacob) thereby strengthening family bonds and reducing the likelihood of recidivism. As an avid, ongoing supporter of his wife’s humanitarian efforts, de la Bastide has also dedicated all the profits from Within the Law (2021) to The Children’s Ark. Readers will therefore rest assured that they are not only purchasing a publication, but they are supporting ongoing and future projects that are focused on assisting the most vulnerable in our society.
This account of de la Bastide, although primarily focused on his past events, serves as a crucial reference point, upon which we may situate ourselves in the Trinidad and Tobago of the present day. He has provided us with a detailed account that is not merely biographical but may also be instructional. In addition to placing a greater precedent on action rather than rhetoric de la Bastide has always sought to lead by example.
His leadership style has been one of inclusion. Within the Law (2021) has truly been a collaborative effort, harnessing the efforts of not only de la Bastide, but also his wife, Simone, who dealt with the production of this publication, and Justice Kathy Ann Waterman-Latchoo, who did most of the research and editing. Ultimately, this work provides a wealth of information and legal excellence. However, the reader will also conclude that even though he has retired and slipped out of the limelight, we still have a lot to learn from Michael de la Bastide.