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Judge jitters

Published: 
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Social media abuzz after Seepersad ruling

The dangerous cocktail of politics mixing with the judiciary gathered more steam yesterday, after a late Monday night hearing in the High Court temporarily blocked the appointment of two new judges yesterday. The Appeal Court subsequently overturned the injunction later yesterday.

But senior members of the legal fraternity and judges of the High Court are now expressing alarm about public comments being made against Justice Frank Seepersad after his initial ruling.

Seepersad is the same judge who recently made decisions effectively stopping the Government from implementing the property tax and halting the demolition of illegal squatters in Valencia.

Questions about how Seepersad was assigned the latest case although he was in Tobago and his ability to pen a 22-page ruling within hours were the subject of ridicule on Facebook.

A T&T Guardian article dated January 12, 2013, was also reposted. That article dealt with the subject of Seepersad being considered a contender for the post of President of the country by the then People’s Partnership administration.

But commenting on the system which assigns civil cases yesterday, judiciary sources said it was implemented as part of the Civil Proceeding Rules in 2005 and is a computer-based programme. Each case is weighted based on the significance of its importance in public law.

A judge admitted there have been complaints about the inefficiency of the system, as it appeared the more efficient judges were being assigned more matters.

“Its madness to be criticised for efficiency,” the judge said.

“They are holding Frank out to be a UNC judge, that is wholly unfair,” the judge added.

A source close to Seepersad said he was aware of the negative comments on social media being made against him, some of which had a political flavour, but was not overly concerned about them. Seepersad, the source said, was more concerned about the potential risk of danger by such labels and intends to exercise “extreme care”.

The judge said judges have the assistance of Judicial Research Officers to help them outline judgments and it is not infeasible to write a detailed judgment in a few hours.

Judiciary sources said given the fact that a lawsuit challenging the composition of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission (JLSC) had already been assigned to Seepersad, once an injunction relating to the same case had been filed it would be transferred to the judge’s docket. The matter remains with the judge wherever he is assigned, the source said. The source noted that while there is always an emergency judge on standby to hear urgent applications for injunctive relief, that judge would only intervene if the “docketed judge” is unavailable.

But another senior lawyer said judges ought not to be “too thin-skinned” to be affected by public criticisms of their rulings.

Questions seeking clarity about how civil cases are assigned were not answered by the Judiciary up to press time last night.

The T&T Guardian asked: “Can the Judiciary set the record straight on how civil cases are assigned to judges?

“Also, how this particular case was assigned to Justice Seepersad in Tobago?

“Also, given the social media comments against Justice Seepersad, does the Judiciary wish to comment on this?”

The comments come after Seepersad has made three significant rulings against the State.

...Many unanswered questions

Commenting on Seepersad’s latest judgment, University of the West Indies lecturer and outspoken social media blogger Rhoda Bharath wrote: “Frank write a 20-page ruling overnight. Why he cyah take over Marcia caseload? That will clear up in what? 4 days?”

Bharath’s post drew several other comments, many of which were not complimentary. She gave the T&T Guardian permission to use her comments but not those of people commenting on her post.

In another post when the injunction was filed on Monday night, Bharath wrote: “Carmona was going to appoint two judges tomorrow. Anand Ramlogan file an injunction to block the appointments tonight. Two women were to be appointed. Guess who is the Judge the injunction in front of?

Wait for it... Wait for it... Frank Seepersad!”

In an interview yesterday, Bharath told the T&T Guardian that “the negative comments on social media are an outcome of public anxiety, not an impact of it. They stem from feelings of “unconfidence” in a judicial system. “Those feelings are hardening into a conviction that the system is flawed based on reports, columns and opinions that started off in more traditional forms of media. Social media has merely allowed members of the public who have an interest in these matters to congregate and share their views on the stories that are unfolding about the CJ, the JLSC, the Law Association of T&T (LATT) and several legal matters that are before the courts and whose outcome will affect the entire country.”

She added: “The only way to stem the tide of negativity, as you call it, is through a confident, head-on addressing of matters by the Chief Justice. And not in a press release. He needs to set the record straight, not just to his legal peers, but to a population that sees the judiciary as distant, aloof and condescending.”

Attorney Justin Phelps disagreed.

“Comments imputing bias to judges or courts are extremely dangerous, erode public confidence in the administration of justice and inhibit the ability of the State to maintain law and order.

“Such comments should be clearly and firmly condemned. In the case of Seepersad J, there is no reason to think that he did anything other than hear a case and determine it according to his view of the law and the facts. The commentary is unwarranted and should be discouraged.”

Asked whether the judiciary or Law Association, which has a mandate to protect the administration of justice, should step in to set the record straight on how cases are assigned to judges, Bharath said: “The short answer is yes. The longer answer is, it confuses me how both the judiciary and the LATT are missing this vital opportunity to have a conversation with the population about how the legal system works and how it can be improved.”

Phelps also agreed, saying, “In my view yes. The system of allocation of cases to judges is random, and a statement to that effect would be helpful.”

Asked what could be the consequences if the public buys into the perception or allegation that members of the judiciary are supporters or sympathisers of one political party over the other in T&T, Bharath said, “The consequence is already in our faces: deep public anxiety and doubt. There is a loss of confidence in the judicial system by some, and that is a dark and dangerous road to be heading down. A judiciary perceived as being politically compromised takes us further along the path of becoming a failed state. It makes us ripe for instability. So that has to be nipped in the bud at once. ..To avoid further damage the Chief Justice and the JLSC have to come to the public and dispel all of these notions.”

Phelps added, “If that perception was sufficiently widespread it would be the first step to the destruction of our democracy. There would be a basis for the political directorate to question the courts orders—erasing the primary “check and balance” upon which democracy depends.”

WHO IS FRANK SEEPERSAD

Frank Seepersad was appointed a judge of the High Court in April 2012 at the age of 40, making him one of the youngest judges in the Supreme Court. He was the former president of the Assembly of Southern Lawyers.