A legal trailblazer has hung up his robes.
Justice Selwyn Romilly, the first Black judge appointed to the British Columbia provincial court in 1974 and the Supreme Court 21 years later, retired last January after a long and distinguished career in which he produced nearly 720 judgments in all areas of the law.
A product of San Fernando Government School in Trinidad & Tobago, where his father was the principal and Queen’s Royal College, Romilly came to Canada in 1960 with a student visa that was renewed annually.
Until his brother – Valmond – joined him at the University of British Columbia two years later, Romilly was the only Black student in law school. Once arrested briefly for “Running While Black”, he also had to contend with the failure of three Trinidadian students to graduate from UBC’s law school two years before he entered the institution.
“My days in law school were hellish and the most stressful in my life,” Romilly once said. “The pressure on me to succeed was intense. I not only had to do well, but I felt I had to do better. Were it not for a few of my close friends, I would not have made it through law school.”
The close friends included engineer and consultant, Wilbur Walrond, who met Romilly in elementary school in T & T.
“Selwyn is a man of great substance, character and integrity,” Walrond, who has been a British Columbia resident since 1958, said at a retirement gala for Romilly last week at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver. “He is a man who is pious without hypocrisy, a man who is benevolent without ostentation, a man who treasures his friends and who gives of himself with no thought of anything in return and a man who will quietly and humbly break down barriers no matter where they may be so that others less fortunate than himself will have an easier row to hoe for those that come after.”
Unable to secure an apprenticeship in Vancouver after graduating in 1966, Romilly – with the help of a classmate whose wealthy parents convinced their lawyer to offer him an opportunity – articled in Kamloops. Offered a position at the firm for “starvation wages”, he left and was on his way to Prince Rupert to practice.
The 75-year-old often tells the story of stopping at Smithers, which is about 800 miles from Vancouver and meeting the only lawyer there within a 200 mile radius that had not had a vacation in 13 years. The lawyer made Romilly an offer he couldn’t refuse and he worked with him for two years before starting a thriving practice there.
Following the introduction of a new provincial court act in British Columbia in the early 1970s that led to the phasing out of lay judges, the brightest and best legal minds were sought to sit on the Bench. After a third invitation, Romilly – with the support of his father, who advised him to accept the offer – made history at age 34.
In the last three decades, he has contributed significantly to the development of the law in BC. Several of his judgments have been summarized in the Weekly Criminal Bulletin, the BC Digest of Criminal and Sentence Cases and the Charter of Rights Digest and in 1991, he was voted by BC lawyers as one of the four best provincial court judges in the province.
The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL) BC branch organized the sold-out gala.
“Justice Romilly is a wonderful human being and mentor for a lot of Black lawyers in British Columbia,” said branch president, Raphael Tachie, an assistant vice president with Manulife Financial. “He is somebody who has guided us through our careers. He’s like a father figure to many of us.”
Ontario Court of Appeal judge, Michael Tulloch; Ontario Superior Court of Justice judge, Kofi Barnes; CABL Toronto president, Donna Walwyn and immediate past president, Arleen Huggins, attended the gala.
“While Justice Romilly has always been a fervent supporter of CABL, his generosity of spirit and his willingness to share his love of the law extended far beyond the Black legal community,” said Walwyn. “Throughout his more than 40 years on the bench, he truly lived the motto, ‘Lifting as We Climb’, and CABL looks forward to many more years of his guidance and mentorship.”