“People often ask me, ‘how can you represent a rapist’. But for me it’s a job,” explains British-Grenadian lawyer, Ayanna Nelson. “My clients are not my friends, I’m not condoning what they’ve done; I’m doing my job.”
Having qualified in the UK she abides by the cab-rank rule – whereby if a barrister is instructed by a client they are obliged to take on the case. As one of only two female criminal lawyers in Grenada, 30-year old Ayanna has become one of the island’s go-to legal professionals for representation in sexual crimes.
The young lawyer arrived in Grenada in 2010. After undertaking her pupillage training with Mr Alban John and working at Justis Chambers, in 2011 Ayanna decided to establish her own practice, St Ives Chambers. “People say I’m brave, but I don’t really see it that way. It just depends on what you want to achieve. Everybody has the right to representation,” she says.
Her strong belief in making a difference led her to play an active role within the Grenada Bar Association where she served two terms as secretary. “I realise that rather than sitting back and complaining if you have the opportunity to try and do something you should. Some people say that makes me political, but I deny that strenuously. I don’t think it’s political at all. I think it’s an appreciation of the fact that things need to be done matched with a willingness to do so.”
When we met at her office on John Street, it’s is only a few weeks before her return to London to embark upon the next stage of her career. “I’ve been in Grenada for four and a half years, which is longer than I expected to stay. You get hooked and develop an addiction to life here,” she explains. “Now that I’m leaving, it’s really hard to pull myself away. It’s been tough – I sometimes burst into tears but at the same time I’m looking forward to what comes next.”
Having studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris and Kings College in London, what led you decide to move to Grenada?
I’d just finished law school, I’d got through the whole pupillage application process – which was one of the most gruelling experiences ever. I was waiting to hear back from three places. It took a lot out of me and I was facing having to wait a whole year to go through the process again. While my dad was in Grenada and he called me to say that a friend of the family was looking for a new associate to join his practice. I didn’t even think about it. The options were to keep on working as a paralegal for the next year to practice as a lawyer, which is what I’d always wanted to do. It was a no-brainer. I was very excited.
Did you come to Grenada often as a child?
I’ve always thought of Grenada as my home away from home. I’ve had a lot of friends where since childhood. My parents are very Grenadian. We were cultured as Grenadian children although we understood that we had to have a British element too. The older I got the more I realised that I could be both – that I could be British and I could be Grenadian. When I was younger it was a little more confusing as I saw myself more as Grenadian to the extent that I would talk to my friends at school and used ‘Grenadianisms’, not realising they wouldn’t understand what I meant.
What was one of the most significant elements which you had to adapt to when moving here?
The slow pace. I’m quite laid back generally, or at least I thought I was but practice in Grenada is on another level. The first thing which shocked me when I moved here is what I call the ‘adjournment culture’. It takes so long for litigation to progress, which is not helped by the fact that many lawyers will gladly want things to be adjourned. I found it very odd that there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency. It’s beginning to change because there has been a number of problems with the court system, with the courts being closed so there is a huge backlog now. I found it very frustrating and I still do.
It’s difficult when a client comes to you and they want to file a claim and you have to explain to them that they more than likely won’t get a judgement for up to five years and sometimes up to eight or ten. I find it almost embarrassing to have to say that. It’s no fault of mine and that’s just how things are but as lawyers we have a responsibility to try and remedy that in whatever way we can. People see lawyers as part of the system, but we run alongside it. In terms of actually affecting change within the court system itself, it has proven difficult for lawyers to remedy that in any significant why.
A common theme in these interviews is that, while there’s deep awareness among the population of social issues which need to be addressed and which people aren’t happy about, it’s rare that this discontent translates into action that challenges or remedies the status quo. From your perspective, what accounts for that?
I agree with you. It’s very sad to say it but we generally have a culture of apathy in Grenada. People are very happy to sit back and complain but when it comes to actually doing something about it they either don’t know how or are just not willing. The fact is that we are a very small nation. That gives people the opportunity to have an effect. If you’re in the States you’re dealing with a population of hundreds of millions. It’s going to be very difficult for one person to accede to the point where they can influence change. In Grenada, we have a population of 100,000 people. The chances of one person being able to influence some sort of change here are infinitely greater. So why then sit back and say you can’t take action or that that is for the politicians?
I have very little time for armchair critics – people who sit back and criticise without asking the questions, what can I do, how can I change this situation, how can I implement the ideas that I have. You would be surprised, people come up with very simple but brilliant ideas for social change and they’re not that difficult to implement. Even if there were logistical challenges, there are so many organisations that are willing to reach out and give support to them, but they hide their ideas. But all it takes is speaking to the right person and all of a sudden your plan is in effect and things are improving and you can change your community.
What do you think it will take for that mind-set to shift?
I think it’s a generational thing. The older generations, it’s probably too late, you’re not going to get people to change their mind-set just like that. You really have to target the school children of today and get them to constantly question and to not accept anything as given. It’s something that needs to be ingrained in them and at a very early age, even from primary school.
I used to teach at TAMCC. I would start off every new class by their name, where they’re from and what they wanted to do when they finished their studies. Some of them came up with very outlandish plans and the other students would laugh. I would say, ‘no you can’t laugh, if that’s what she wants to do, she’ll do it’. Perseverance is key. If we manage to ingrain that into the minds of young people we will very rapidly see change in Grenada and change for the better.
When you were at school did you find that your teachers were supportive of your interest in Law?
The schools I went to, especially my secondary school, were not even predominantly white, they were overwhelmingly white. I was one of maybe four black kids in the entire year. I was always top of my class. Whenever we entered a new academic year and were introduced to a new teacher, they would never expect the only black girl in the room to be the top of the class. I remember registering the look of surprise on their faces, even at a young age.
There were some teachers who were encouraging and who would push me. I had a maths teacher, Mr Mallison, who I’ll never forget. He saw my potential and would send me to maths master classes at the University of Hertfordshire where we were taught by university professors at age 13 and 14.
But when I did my A-levels I moved to another school and I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. It was one of the top schools in the country so I went from being top of the class to one of many bright kids. When I was there I don’t think I got any support at all. I realise, speaking about it now, that I still have a little bit resentment, which is sad. For years, I couldn’t talk about the school and my experiences there. Now, obviously, I like to say that I’ve gotten over it but maybe I haven’t.