Caribbean-born lawyer aspires to continue public service role

Lawyer Inga O'Neale.
Alister Julien Photography/Alij1 Photography

A Brooklyn-based, Caribbean-born lawyer, who won the June 22 Democratic Primary for a seat on the bench in Civil Court in Brooklyn, says she will continue her public service role, if elected to the bench in the November general elections.

Inga O’Neale — a long-time Brooklynite and the first attorney in her family, who was born in Antigua and Barbuda to Grenadian parents — told Caribbean Life on Wednesday that her legal experience and community service have sparked a desire to help others.

“I am grateful to my campaign team, family, friends and the voters in Brooklyn for my campaign’s success in the Democratic Primary for Kings County Civil Court Judge countywide,” she said. “I am committed to using my legal experience and community service to help people resolve the issues affecting their daily lives in a fair and impartial manner.”

In winning the Democratic Primary, O’Neale beat Charles Finkelstein and Casilda Roper Simpson.

She is unsure if she will have an independent or Republican challenger in the November general elections.

In a heavily Democratic city, the winner in the Primary is considered a shoo-in to win the general elections.

Even as a child, O’Neale said she always knew that she wanted to have a career serving others.

During college at SUNY at Stony Brook, she said realized that her true career path was in the field of law. Ultimately, she was accepted to Hofstra Law School in Long Island.

During law school, O’Neale interned with a Supreme Court Justice and the Law Department at the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term in downtown Brooklyn.

O’Neale said the first time she ever set foot in a courthouse was during this internship. She credited this experience as her inspiration to work within the court system.

O’Neale said she realized then how she could make a difference addressing any inequalities in the justice system “by being part of the legal system serving all communities.”

She was also a student advocate in her law school’s Child Advocacy Clinic.

As a student advocate, O’Neale said she represented children in cases involving allegations of abuse and neglect.

“These experiences fueled a desire to ensure that all are ensured proper legal services and are treated with compassion by the court system,” she said.

After graduating from law school, O’Neale worked as a clerical assistant at the Law Guardian Program for the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department.

She then applied to, interviewed for and took a test for the position as a Court Attorney in the Law Department of the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term.

As a court attorney, O’Neale said she conducted legal research and drafted bench memoranda on a variety of areas of civil law, conducted discovery and settlement conferences in actions pending in the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term, as well as civil cases pending in the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department’s Civil Appeals Management Program (CAMP).

She also provided legal information to unrepresented litigants in the court’s Office of the Self Represented.

O’Neale said her dedicated and thorough work as a Court Attorney was noticed by one of the Supreme Court justices, “leading to an opportunity to work as a Principal Law Clerk.”

She said she has now worked alongside three different jurists, whom she considers to be her mentors.

In that capacity, O’Neale said she has had experience working in a Medical Malpractice Part, in busy Individual Assignment System and Trial Assignment Parts, handling motions, preparing verdict sheets and jury charges and conducting on the spot research to address evidentiary and substantive issues raised during many trials.

Since 2005, she has also served as a volunteer arbitrator in the Kings County Small Claims Court, where she is tasked with the responsibility of arbitrating and settling small claims cases, including administering oaths, taking testimony and rendering binding decisions.

As an experienced attorney, having worked for 19 years in the Brooklyn court system, O’Neale said she has undertaken all of her positions with “dedication, diligence and increased responsibility.”

She said her professional work experience was recognized when she was honored with the 2017 Employee of the Year Award for Chambers staff.

She was the recipient of the 2016 Faith O’Neal Memorial Award for Distinguished Service to the Association of Law Secretaries to the Justices of the Supreme and Surrogate’s Court.

In addition to her professional experience, O’Neale said she has been involved with various professional and community organizations.

She is the current secretary, former president and board member, since 2009, of the Association of Law Secretaries to the Justices of the Supreme and Surrogate’s Court.

O’Neale said is a board member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association and a member of the Minorities in the Courts Committee of the New York City Bar Association, the Brooklyn Bar Association, the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association, the Caribbean Attorneys Network, the Caribbean American Lawyers Association and the Catholic Lawyer’s Guild.

O’Neale serves as a mentor with the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association Mentorship program.

She has served as a Mock Trial Coach with the Kings County Supreme Court’s Summer Youth Employment Program and participated as an interviewer for law school students as part of mock interview programs.

O’Neale said she cherishes “the opportunity to be able to give back to those interested in or currently pursuing a career in the law,” because she did not know where to seek such assistance when she first migrated to New York.

She is the vice president of the Brooklyn Canarsie Lions Club and has been engaged in various community service programs, including mask and care-package giveaways, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

O’Neale said she motivated to run for election as judge at this point in her career after being involved as a co-chair of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association’s Judiciary Training Academy, a program meant to increase diversity on the bench in state and federal courts.

She said the Judiciary Training Academy gave her “the courage to take the necessary steps to fulfill” her dreams of serving the Brooklyn community.

“This program is of particular importance, in light of the recent report by Jeh Johnson, Esq., as Special Adviser on Equal Justice in the Courts,” O’Neale said.

In response to incidents and complaints about institutional racism in the courts, Johnson was appointed to conduct an independent review of the court system’s policies, practices and programs as it relates to racial bias.

O’Neale said she believes that she would be an asset to a diverse bench, “with an understanding of the inequities in the delivery of justice in the courts, as well as a commitment to address it.”

She said being involved in the community has heightened her awareness of the issues that affect Brooklyn residents.

“As we emerge from this pandemic, this would allow me to be an effective jurist who can make a difference by ensuring that justice is done in cases appearing before the court,” O’Neale said.

As an attorney working in the court system, she said does not get to choose the cases that she handles but is aware that what she does “makes a difference to the parties whose cases mean all the world to them.”

At a very young age, O’Neale said it became necessary for her family to relocate to different islands in the Caribbean, as her father’s job, as an employee with Bank of Nova Scotia, required moving from Antigua to Nassau, the Bahamas, then on to St. Kitts, and finally settling in Grenada, where she spent her formative years.

Her parents, Roy and Gloria O’Neale, reside in St. George’s, the Grenadian capital.

O’Neale said her parents both came from large families, with humble beginnings, and did not have the opportunity to attend college but knew the importance of higher education.

Throughout their upbringing, she said she and her older brother, Garth, were held to the highest academic achievement standards, “always pushed to work harder to attain more in life.”

O’Neale said her parents taught her and her brother, from a young age, “to treat everyone, regardless of their background, with kindness and the utmost respect, always, instilling high moral values applicable in all facets of life.”

O’Neale is a graduate of the St. Joseph’s Convent, St. George’s and the Grenada National College.

“Growing up in the Caribbean, along with the support of a solid family foundation, cultivated a strong work ethic, high professionalism, determination and a deep sense of community, commitment and service, which make me the person she is today,” she said.

O’Neale said her maternal grandmother, Huldah McQuilkin, the matriarch of the family, “took the bold steps of migrating from Grenada to Brooklyn in the 1970’s in search of more opportunities for herself and her family,” trailblazing the path for O’Neale’s maternal grandfather, aunts and uncles.

Like many immigrants and immigrant families, when she moved to New York in her late teens, O’Neale said she, too, “left a cocoon of belonging and familiarity to establish a living in a whole new world” away from her parents and friends, “where nearly every experience and connection were now unfamiliar.”

Over the years, O’Neale said legal experience and community service triggered a quest “to make a difference by helping people resolve the issues affecting their daily lives.”

She intends to continue in the role of public service — “this time as a judge of the Civil Court in Brooklyn.”

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