Prior to the year 1825, when Anguilla joined with St Kitts and came under the jurisdiction of the St Kitts judicial system, Anguilla had no legally established Court. A committee of the Anguilla Council served as Justices of the Peace and imposed such penalties and fines as seemed proper to them. Appeals lay informally to the Governor in Antigua, but this right was seldom exercised.
This was unusual in the West Indies at the time. All of the other colonies had legally constituted courts, some of them since the first half of the seventeenth century. By the time of the General Assembly of the Leeward Islands of 1705, when the common law of England was formally adopted by an Act, all of the islands except Anguilla had legally established courts. The explanation for Anguilla’s lack of a properly constituted court lies in the poverty of the soil and the extremes of drought that the island regularly suffered.
The plantation economy never flourished in Anguilla. The sugar industry made a brief appearance in the 1740s, but was extinguished by the American Revolution of 1776 and the ensuing blockade of trade with the rebelling colonies that was enforced by the Royal Navy. Even the deputy governor of Anguilla functioned without a formal patent. Every other governor and deputy governor was appointed by royal patent. The leading planters of the island always appointed the governor of Anguilla. As he would inevitably be the most powerful planter in the island, he was in effect self-appointed. As one governor in Antigua reported to the Committee of Trade and Foreign Plantations in London in late eighteenth century, “If the cudgel of the governor of Anguilla be one whit lesser than one of his subject’s, then ‘good night governor!’”
From the year 1825 the Chief Justice of St Kitts visited Anguilla on board his sloop to conduct the Assizes periodically. Sitting with him on the bench were two local JPs who assisted him as his assessors. Anguilla’s judicial system changed with the judicial system of St Kitts to which it was joined. By the year 1967 the colonies of the Leeward and Windward Islands, after the break-up of the West Indies Federation, were headed to independence like their elder brothers and sisters in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, and Barbados. They entered into the intermediate status of Associated States with Great Britain.
Associated Statehoodship brought with it the West Indies Associated States Supreme Court. It had a short life in Anguilla. Within two years Anguilla was in rebellion against its enforced marriage with St Kitts and Nevis. The Anguilla Revolution of 1967 was the first successful armed revolt in the British West Indies. The thirteen members of the St Kitts police force manning the police station were packed onto a LIAT airplane still dressed in their pyjamas. The St Kitts judge was jeered out of his courthouse and chased down the runway until he boarded a waiting flight to take him back to St Kitts. As is well known, the social welfare officer, Raphael Lake, was appointed Magistrate by the Anguilla Council and functioned in that office until he was replaced by the British administration after their invasion of the island in 1969.
In 1971 the British Parliament passed the Anguilla Act, which permitted Britain to separately administer that part of the Associated State of St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla. Britain selected and paid for a Magistrate, a High Court Judge, and three Judges of the Court of Appeal. These were rubber stamped by the Judicial and Legal Services Commission of the West Indies Associated States. Appeal lay to the Privy Council, and at least one appeal went all the way before Anguilla re-joined the West Indian judicial family. Several West Indians, most of them retired judges, were appointed from time to time to act as Magistrates and High Court judges in Anguilla in this way. They included the late Elwyn St Bernard and Frank Field. Don Mitchell of St Kitts and Anguilla, Ena Woodstock of Jamaica, and Patricia Mark of Grenada were among those appointed as Magistrate. Long-serving clerks of the court at this time included Mary Richardson, who on occasion in later years was appointed JP and acted as Magistrate in emergencies, and Marge Connor, still well known in the community.
By 1980, the People’s Action Movement party in St Kitts had gained power by defeating the Labour Party in general elections. The administration of the new St Kitts-Nevis premier, Dr Kennedy Simmons, negotiated with Britain for independence. The British agreed, on condition that Sombrero was transferred to Anguilla from which they could more easily control the light-house island and the sea approaches to the Panama Canal, and on condition that St Kitts let Anguilla go. By the year 1982, the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, to give recognition to the demise of the Associated States and their replacement by independent Commonwealth Caribbean countries, had replaced the West Indies Associated States Supreme Court throughout the region. The Anguilla Assembly passed the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court Act, and re-entered the fold of the regional judiciary. From that time the Magistrates and Judges of Anguilla have been appointed by the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, and not just been rubber-stamped.
Prior to the Hurricane of 1950, the courthouse was situated on the top of Crocus Hill in what was probably Governor Gumbs’ old home. The wooden structure was blown off, but the masonry basement, including the cell, can still be seen alongside the large ugly water storage tank in its yard. It was only in 1964 that the Bradshaw administration replaced the lost courthouse. One of the first buildings that Wallace Rey built after he retired from the US base in Antigua where he had worked since the War, was the new court house. Its magnificent reinforced concrete beams that reach up from the foundations and arch up and over the roof to descend on the other side made it one of the most imposing structures at the time on the island. That courtroom served as the home for the Anguilla Assembly, the Court of Appeal, the High Court, the Magistrates Court, and the Juvenile Court. They all shared the one-room premises without difficulty. Until recently, the Magistrates court sat on Thursday mornings, the Juvenile Court on one Friday morning per month, if there was a case to be heard. The High Court judge visited from another island no more than once or twice a year for a month at most. The Court of Appeal sat for a day or two as needed.
By the late 1990s the old courthouse was no longer adequate to serve as a multi-purpose building. The tourism industry had fuelled an enormous growth in the economy, and crime and other litigation had mushroomed. With British financial assistance, a new building was constructed in the administration grounds. It now consists of the present three rooms we know. They are the Magistrate’s Court, the High Court, and the House of Assembly. These will serve Anguilla for the foreseeable future, but inevitably, in time, will come to seem in their turn to be out-dated and in need of replacement. We can but hope that that will be a long time coming. As we in turn achieve independence as our neighbours have done, it will be time for us to make the funds for its replacement available so that future generations will have the structures they will require.
8 January 2004.