These were some of the terms used yesterday to describe the decision of the Government to withdraw on a phased basis from the Privy Council. Weighing-in on the issue were former attorneys general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and John Jeremie, former foreign affairs minister Paula Gopee-Scoon and Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.
Jeremie said yesterday: “The statement of intent to remove criminal appeals might be welcomed but it did not go far enough nor did it seem to be practicable or lawful”. He said in any “criminal case” a constitutional point might arised and be argued. “It is artificial to speak about abolishing the Privy Council for criminal appeals only,” because criminal matters could have a civil dimension, he said. He cited the Nimrod Miguel case which went to the Privy Council as a criminal appeal but which the Privy Council decided as a constitutional appeal.
“That case demonstrates that so-called ‘criminal law’ matters can easily become intertwined with constitutional law issues,” he said. “So you cannot say you are abolishing criminal appeals. What does that mean? That the Privy Council cannot decide a criminal case on a constitutional basis? It makes no sense,” he said.
He also stated that Article 25 of the Caribbean Court of Justice Agreement which the United National Congress (UNC) Government signed and which the PNM Government implemented provides for a broad appellate jurisdiction which includes criminal, civil matters. “If we now wish to limit the appellate jurisdiction to the criminal side, we would be in breach of that agreement. The only way we could have done that was to enter a reservation at the time that the treaty was acceded to (in 2000) (in accordance with Article 39 of the treaty which states” a reservation may be entered to Article XXV of this Agreement with the consent of the contracting parties”.. We did not do that (enter a reservation) so it is 12 years too late,” he said.
This point was also made by former foreign affairs minister Paula Gopee-Scoon.
Maharaj said when he was AG the UNC Government had proposed the same partial removal but did not get the permission of the British Government. He recalled that when he went to London in 1999 to get the approval of the British Government because the British Government had to decide whether they would keep the civil jurisdiction if the country wanted to do away with the Privy Council as the final court for the criminal jurisdiction. “We were told that they were not prepared to do that”. He said the Privy Council was quite happy to do get rid of the jurisdiction altogether, he were not prepared to accept the phased proposal.”And that was known by the present Prime Minister, because she was a member of the Cabinet” he said. After the Government was turned down, it took the position that the issue of withdrawals of appeals to the Privy Council would be a matter for a referendum. He added that the People’s Partnership manifesto took the same view.
“So it is in that context that I believe that the present Prime Minister knows that you really cannot go with this idea at this time, unless you decide that you are going to abolish the civil jurisdiction as well,”he said.
Maharaj said the reason the UNC Government could not make a decision on the civil jurisdiction, was that consultations with the business community and foreign investors, revealed that the continued link with the Privy Council was important to investor confidence in Trinidad and Tobago. He said Ministry of Finance then indicated to him that most of the foreign investors asked about the judicial system and the existence of an external court was an inducement to them. He stated further that in doing the studies he discovered that when Guyana abolished appeals to the Privy Council, a lot of foreign investors pulled out of that country because of fears that there would be Government interference in the determination of their matters. “So it is not a simple issue, by merely introducing a bill in the Parliament without talking to the British Government could mean that the British Government could decide that they don’t want either civil or criminal cases. If that happens without a proper consultation and proper assessment process, it could do a lot of damage to Trinidad and Tobago”.
He said he believed that the Prime Minister made the statement for pure diversionary politics: “To divert the public attention from the pressing issues against the Government. In the Parliament on Wednesday there was a question about her expending public funds on her sister. And we still don’t know whether the sister is a nurse or a travelling officer and why the sister has to be there”. Other public issues being raised against the Government were the standstill, economy, crime, the abuse of pre-action procotol letters by members of the Government, he said. “So is it that the Prime Minister decided to change the agenda so people would just be talking about Caribbean Court of Justice and the Privy Council?” he asked.