Equal Opportunity Tribunal (EOT) chairman Donna Prowell-Raphael has signalled her intention to appeal High Court Judge Avason Quinlan-Williams’ judgment in a lawsuit over EOT lay assessor Veera Bhajan being blocked from taking up her appointment.
In a press release issued Thursday afternoon, the EOT’s Protocol Department said while the tribunal does not intend to appeal the orders pronounced by Justice Quinlan-Williams on Tuesday, Prowell-Raphael has decided to appeal the findings against her based on advice from her legal team headed by Senior Counsel Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj.
The release suggested that Prowell-Raphael was advised that Quinlan-Williams made serious errors of law, which precipitated erroneous declarations and the corresponding award of damages.
“Senior Counsel advised that the judge had no jurisdiction because no sustainable claim with a cause of action to obtain damages was pleaded,” the release said.
“He (Maharaj) further advised that the awards were inconsistent with established principles of law and that the adverse comments made against the chairman were unsupported by any evidence in the case.”
The tribunal claimed that in the lawsuit, Bhajan never raised allegations of discrimination on the basis of race, disability or hate.
“Hence, there was neither necessity nor reason for the tribunal and or the chairman to consider and or defend these scandalous and unfounded suggestions,” it said.
It claimed that the lawsuit dealt with transparency and fairness of legislative appointments and sought to decide whether public officers should be paid from the date of their appointments or from the date of their assumption of office.
It claimed that its policy of not paying public officers from the date of their appointments is the same that exists within other government departments and there has been no change in official government policy.
“The unchallenged facts put forward by the tribunal was that the tribunal was closed, because of numerous challenges it faced (no internet, no phone service and unsafe conditions and improper ventilation etc) and therefore the appointment could not be facilitated,” it said, as it maintained that its actions were not injudicious.
“The actions of the chairman have and continue to be consistently intended to protect the independence and survival of the tribunal, its finances and the well-being of its staff in keeping with the oath of office ‘without fear or favour’,” it said.
The tribunal claimed that it had not issued a statement on the case in keeping with the general practice that judicial institutions do not comment on judicial matters.
“However, the situation is an unprecedented one and the tribunal is constrained to protect and ensure continued public confidence and trust in its operations, which are essential to the performance of its statutory duties,” the release said.
Despite the claim, the tribunal did in fact issue a press release shortly after Quinlan-Williams gave her decision on Tuesday.
“The tribunal respects the ruling of the Honourable Court and will meet with its attorneys to determine its next steps. The tribunal looks forward to continuing to serve the citizens of T&T,” the tribunal said in that previous release.
In her judgment on Tuesday, Justice Quinlan-Williams ruled that the tribunal and Prowell-Raphael acted illegally and beyond their statutory remit in taking the action.
In addition to issuing declarations against the tribunal and Prowell-Raphael, Quinlan-Williams ordered that Bhajan be paid her salary and benefits which were withheld since March, plus interest. She also ordered that Bhajan’s appointment, which took effect on March 17, be immediately facilitated.
The tribunal and Prowell-Raphael were ordered to pay $100,000 in damages for the distress and embarrassment they caused her.
Quinlan-Williams also ordered $250,000 in vindicatory damages to highlight the court’s strong feelings over what transpired in the case.
“There ought to be a sense of public outrage over what occurred,” Quinlan-Williams said, as she described the attempts to block the appointment as disturbing and off-putting.
Quinlan-Williams noted that based on the evidence before her, Prowell-Raphael never spoke directly with Bhajan after she was appointed by President Paula-Mae Weekes on March 17.
“What is up with that?” Quinlan-Williams asked.
She also questioned whether Prowell-Raphael would reconsider her continued role on the tribunal based on the outcome of the case.
“I wonder if at the end of this saga, after all is said and done and when there is an opportunity to reflect on decisions made and actions taken, whether the second defendant would, in a quiet time, reflect on whether she is the best fit for chair of the Equal Opportunity Tribunal,” Quinlan-Williams said.
Quinlan-Williams noted that the challenges persisted even after the Office of the President and the Office of the Attorney General stood by the legality of the appointment and supported Bhajan’s legal challenge.
“There was no regard to the mandate of the tribunal to prevent discrimination and to promote equal opportunities for people of unequal status. There was no regard for how it would look to the rest of us that a person who is lawfully appointed by Her Excellency cannot get her just dues from the EOT and its chair,” she said.
In her judgment, Quinlan-Williams noted that over the past few months, the tribunal and Prowell-Raphael gave varying reasons on why she should not be allowed to assume her duties, including the tribunal’s limited financial resources, its inability to accommodate a member with a disability and allegations that Bhajan may be perceived to be biased based on her disability.
Quinlan-Williams soundly rejected its claims that Bhajan, who was born without arms and received the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) in 2011, did not have 10 years combined experience in law and social work as required for the appointment of a lay-assessor.
“As to her qualifications to hold the post of lay-assessor, her life has been the best testament to social welfare. She has lived it. Her experiences are from the time of her birth,” Quinlan-Williams said.
Quinlan-Williams’ written judgment is yet to be released.