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Reviewing the Privy Council
I have previously written on the subject matter of retaining the Privy Council (PC) and indicated the importance of engaging in widespread consultation in order to educate the public about the operation of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), its history and its role in the development of Carib-bean jurisprudence. Far too many people in our republic are quick to give a decision or express a view on a matter without being fully and properly informed and so the discussion on topics, in this case, of regional importance do not reach the standard of meaningful debate.
That such a flippant approach is given to the subject of the acceptance of the CCJ as our final Court of Appeal suggests that the matter is either not top priority or is too difficult to discuss or both, or perhaps more alarmingly, there is a lack of regional political collective will to follow in the steps of Guy-ana, Barbados and Belize, the three countries which have conferred on the CCJ the final appellate jurisdiction. Whatever the reason, the citizenry of T&T is entitled to indicate its view on whether the time has come for us to relinquish this final remnant of our colonial past. And if the time is not now, then I boldly ask—when?
None could deny that the first President of the CCJ, Justice Michael de la Bastide, is an outstanding jurist who during his illustrious legal career has made a tremendous contribution to the development of law and the administration of justice as a whole. Upon his retirement from the CCJ, Justice de la Bastide made a stirring plea, justifiably entering the realm of emotional delivery, when he stated:
“I leave this court with the conviction that we have a quality court and I think it would be a catastrophe to destroy it or not use it…if you have a good thing for which you have paid, why in heaven’s name don’t you use it?
“When I think of the possibility that people might let this court slip under the waves, I think it’s tragic. Forgive me for becoming emotional but I really think it would not only be a national catastrophe but a regional catastrophe; this is how strongly I feel about it.” That an eminent scholar re-nowned for his legal acumen has predicted dire consequences if we fail to embrace that which is available for our benefit, then in my view we are duty bound to take the CCJ conversation to the next level. It would be a slap in the face that after such a clear and stern warning issued by a no-nonsense legal luminary, that our response amounted to nothing more than the barest acknowledgement.
The politicians in the region in those countries that have not yet accepted the CCJ must make it their business to hold a public referendum in order to determine the consensus of the people. Admittedly in St Vincent and the Grenadines there was a referendum some two years ago in which the CCJ as the final Court of Appeal was rejected. It has been said by some who hold political office that the voice of the people is the voice of God. So the fact that the people have not been called upon or encouraged to express their views, is it that God is being left out of this decision-making process?
I only raise the issue in this limited religious context because this is a matter in which the opinion of the vast majority will and should carry great weight in the decision-making process. Last year, this Government had indicated that there should be a referendum of the people to decide whether the CCJ would replace the PC. To date there has been no move in this direction. Further, only a few days after the sentiments expressed by Justice de la Bastide, it was reported that the Prime Minister told BBC Caribbean that: “I do not see that we are suffering as a result of having the PC and therefore why fix something that does not need fixing right now.”
While this may be considered the appropriate political response and does buy time on the issue without an outright rejection of the CCJ, I think the subject deserves much more than an evasive approach, especially in light of all that we stand to lose if the wrong decision is made. At the very least, we must be given some clear indication about the position of this Government on the CCJ. If we are asked to draw inferences based on what has been placed in the public domain, and I hasten to add that we should not be invited to speculate or interpret nebulous remarks on the matter, then the future of the CCJ as it relates to us does not seem very bright.
And to deliberately or perhaps inadvertently send the message that the existence and relevance of the CCJ are not matters of urgent, public importance takes us backward rather than forward in our quest to attain developed nation status.
Moving right along
It is quite ironic that the CCJ headquarters is located in Trini-dad, that the first President of the court is a son of the soil and yet our country has refused to take any step in accepting the CCJ as its final Court of Appeal. And it appears that any request to make the CCJ a front-burner issue is considered political contempt. The fact that seven other Carib-bean territories are also childishly clinging to the coat tails of the PC makes it easier for the matter to be placed on the shelf or, worse yet, swept under the carpet.
I am confident however that the matter is not going to be lightly laid to rest. The president of the Law Association, Dana Seetahal SC, is an accomplished legal practitioner and published author who can, in her current position, encourage debate, discussion and dialogue on the matter.
The president of the Criminal Bar Association, Pamela Elder SC, is also well respected in the legal profession and so we look to these professional leaders to ensure that the public is properly informed about matters related to the PC and the CCJ. But the onus still remains on all of us to take charge of our destiny and to ensure that those who govern, honour their national and regional obligations.
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