Relatives, colleagues hail late Ernest Smith as legal luminary, family man
The death of former Member of Parliament for South West St Ann and prominent attorney-at-law Ernest ‘Ernie’ Smith has come as a shock for many, with tributes pouring in, including from Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn, who described Smith as “a great legal personality”.
Long before there was ‘Ernie’ Smith the politician, there was ‘Ernie’ Smith the brilliant lawyer, whose utterances in court are known to have been tinged with humour sometimes.
Admitted to practice on May 19, 1975, at the age of 23 years old, Smith established himself as a noted lawyer in St Ann and the wider Jamaica in ensuing years, making his mark as a lawyer who practised strictly on the tenets of his profession.
In February 2009, Smith made an impassioned plea for tougher penalties for buggery convicts but returned in early March to defend a man charged with that same offence.
And despite the man pleading guilty, Smith’s strident defence saw the man walking away with just a suspended sentence. Smith defended his action, saying it was based on professionalism.
“I am a professional person. Anyone who confides in me and believes in me that I will properly represent them in any case, provided I take the case, I give that person my 100 per cent expertise,” Smith explained then.
“My view on a particular behaviour in the Jamaican society has nothing to do with my professionalism. It has nothing to do with the quality of representation that I give every person who retains me to defend them,” he added.
Smith took that same level of professionalism to the political arena when he was called upon by the Jamaica Labour Party to be its representative for South West St Ann in the 2002 general election, where he went on to beat the incumbent Glenville Shaw of the People’s National Party, 6,046 to 5022, before repeating the victory in 2007 with an increased majority of 6,112 to 4,964.
He eventually bowed out of representational politics after a loss in 2011 to return to full-time practice as a lawyer.
But away from the glare of politics and law, Smith was a family man, and there he would have made his greatest contribution, leaving behind widow Lynette Royes-Smith, son Ernest Jr, and daughters Nesta Claire, Celia, Marsha, and Michelle.
For Michelle (now Smith-Hanniford), one lasting memory of her dad was the many Sunday evenings he would spend playing music for the entire family, with Peter Tosh and Bob Marley among his favourite artistes.
“My love for music, I attribute that to him,” Smith-Hanniford told The Gleaner on Thursday.
“My love for music, that’s one thing I remember about him and him playing oldies but goodies every Sunday afternoon, and we all had to listen to it so. He was a big Peter Tosh fan, he was a Bob Marley fan, and so I attribute my love of music to him,” she added.
She saw him as a good father who was there for the family.
“He was a provider, definitely was a provider, that’s for sure, and he was very much into education as a vehicle to advancing oneself. So, a provider, good father, and just really a drive for all of us to have our education,” Smith-Hanniford said.
Smith’s passing came as, reportedly, he went through a series of health challenges, including open-heart surgery, COVID-19, and cancer. And despite ailing for some time, his death came as a shock for the family.
“We are in shock,” Smith-Hanniford confirmed. “We are trying to process what has happened. We know he was very ill, but when death comes, it comes suddenly and shocking anyway. So we’re just trying to process it all and then just take the necessary steps that one does when one has passed.”
Meanwhile, Llewellyn, who faced Smith in the court over the years, said: “He was a great legal personality. Flamboyant, a lot of legal acumen, filled with joie de vivre – always.”
The DPP said Smith would mentor, was very strategic, and very street-wise and was always a formidable adversary.
She said that whenever he practised, especially in St Ann, Trelawny, and St James, his adversaries always knew they were going up against somebody who was a very popular figure.
“We have had some famous battles, the type of battles that would have the courtroom full in the Circuit Courts,” she recalled.
One such battle was in the Home Circuit where a lady was charged for murder.
“When I objected quite stridently to something that he was doing in cross-examination of my witness, I’m on my feet, he immediately got on his feet and objected to my objection. I have never had a lawyer do that.”
She added: “A significant number of prosecutors, both past and present, persons who are on the bench, we are all in mourning. He really was unique, and he was extraordinary as a personality in the profession. We will miss him greatly.”