AFTER being disbarred as a legal practitioner 23 years ago, 71-year-old Michael Benefield was re-admitted as a legal practitioner before acting Chief Justice Anthony Gates on Tuesday. Mr Benefield yesterday spoke to
MONIKA SINGH about how he managed his time after being disbarred and now that he has been re-admitted, what are some of his plans. Times: How do you feel about being re-admitted to the Bar after a lapse of 20 odd years?
Benefield: Naturally I feel happy and relieved about it and thankful to those who had supported and helped me during that time, especially my family.
Times: Now that you have been re-admitted to the Bar what are some of your immediate plans?
Benefield: My plans are to carry on doing what I have been doing which is general consultancy and advisory and then to ease my way back into the further dimension of being a practitioner. As you will appreciate, one is always a lawyer once you have legal training. A legal practitioner has the ability to be on a roll and to be a member of the Law Society and to only practise in those areas that a legal practitioner is allowed to practise. So I will be just carrying on some of my normal advisory work and ease my way into doing more legal practitioner work. But I am not rushing anything and I am just taking things quiet.
Times: Please elaborate a bit more on the consultancy work that you have been doing over the years?
Benefield: Twenty odd years is a long time and to actually talk about what I have been doing will take long. Some of the highlights for me include being the company secretary for Telecom and that was for a number of years. My work involved working with the board and supporting the board and I set up a legal division within Telecom which included engaging an in-house lawyer. This helped Telecom move from a government department type of mentality to where it is now. Telecommunication industry is a major player in the commercial scene, it has the listing on the Stock Exchange through the Amalgamated Telecom Holdings and now it has its other units like Telecom, Vodafone and Fiji Directories. And basically my role has been to help the different boards facilitate that change. So that was the highlight of the years and I was also the first company secretary for ATH and Vodafone.
Times: How did you and your family deal with the stress of the situation over the years?
Benefield: I think that naturally in any difficult times, your family sharing it are the silent sufferers, but then the strength out of this is the sharing of the problems. But basically for me as a Christian there was the Book of Job because you see Job was at the top of the world when everything was taken away from him and his answer to those is quite a criticised one which said that 'God had given me all this successes and he would also take it all'.
So I think when you take that approach it becomes quite easy. There is a famous prayer which sums up how we dealt with the years that went by and it is also the favourite prayer for the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. "Let me be an instrument of peace. Console people rather than be consoled by them".
The twenty-three years may seem like a lot of time when you are young but it seems to have gone so fast. It's the hard times that teaches the most, it strengthens your family morals and my children have been blessed with this strength.
Times: How do you think your experience will assist the Judiciary in moving the country forward in the current situation?
Benefield: I think that is a very tall question because you are asking me to foresee so many things and I cannot answer that. I can answer only in the same spirit that I dealt with in the last twenty years which will help me work towards the future. I will see that the things I want to do first for me and my family take off first and to my country. I think if one keeps those objectives in mind it really automatically shows that you are positive and that you are a lawyer and you are helping to prove that to the judicial scene. Yet in the end you have to remember that the law doesn't stand in isolation. One of the great American Chief Justices Wendell Holmes was very quick to point out that the law is built on life and that is why sometimes it is a bit illogical because life is not logical. Law needs all the other units in the society to create a fairer and just society and not just a society of rules and regulations.
Times: What is your opinion on the calibre of the young lawyers in the country?
Benefield: No doubt that I will get to know more of them but I believe that we have some very good, very competent and very capable people. In fact I am continually heartened by the fact that they have at quite a young age got maturity. I think they are producing many people through the University of the South Pacific law course and I have over the years kept in touch with what has been going on and I have been glad and impressed to see the strength and calibre of the people that graduate.
Times: Young lawyers these days seem to be more outspoken and are forever ready to speak out on issues concerning law in the country. Are they any different from the lawyers in your time?
Benefield: Well I think our society now accepts a bit more outspokenness but really young people today are no different from young people during our time. But I am always reminded of a quote and I'll rephrase it and that is that 'young people of our days talk too much, they have no manners and they gobble their food' and this was said by Aristotle. And probably older people say that today and the expression never really changes.
Times: Do you think it will be hard for you to adjust into the judiciary after the break?
Benefield: I don't expect it to be hard at all because it is not like I have been spending twenty three years doing other things. I have kept in touch with the law and I have kept in touch with movements of the law regularly and I have been putting together quite a lot of writings. It will be a transition but I think it will be a natural transition.
Times: How do you see the role of the Judiciary in the current situation in the country?
Benefield: I think the Judiciary, probably in times of change which is what's going on; there will be many different views on what the good and bad aspects of the change that is happening.
And when you get this situation I think it is very important to have independent people that can endeavour to take an objective view of the different things that come along and that is really so much the role of the judiciary to not be partisan and be ready to apply the principles of law and also the principles of justice and fairness.
The law which the court tends to administer first is the rules and regulations of society and also the area of common law that fills in the gaps and interprets much of it.
But principles of justice are much wider and they must always be there in the back of the mind and then in fulfilling the law we must also try to see that justice is done fairly and humanely.
Times: What would you advise to the young people who are studying to become lawyers and the young lawyers who are already practising?
Benefield: Experience is a most important factor. People who come out of universities have the qualification to go out in society but they need the experience to apply that qualification.
But it's natural for young people to get going and get as much experience as they can.
But they should not be too worried about getting to the top position but rather look at what they can learn in different areas towards their clients.
I think if we have a bit of humility not as Fijians would say 'not to viavia', then we can learn more.