Thursday, February 28, 2013

From the archives: T&T Government, Judiciary Remain at Loggerheads

During his tenure as Attorney General, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj was the centre of a controversy involving alleged interference in the running of the Judiciary. The archival story reproduced below deals with the issue. 


PORT OF SPAIN, Sep 22 2000 (IPS) - After 12 months and two Commissions of Enquiry, the battle here between the executive and the judiciary over the courts’ independence seems to be far from over.

“It is clear that this dispute is not going to evaporate like morning mist,” says the Express newspaper, while another daily, the Trinidad Guardian notes “it is difficult to see how this deadlock can be broken.”

The judiciary says its key players are all “suffering from battle fatigue” but the Attorney General, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, the government’s main spokesman in the controversy, appears unwilling to back down.

“I don’t think the Chief Justice is gullible, subservient or sycophantic, nor could the Attorney General function properly in his required duties if he was that way either,” said Maharaj.

Last year Chief Justice Michael de La Bastide used the ceremonial opening of the law term to publicly accuse the Basdeo Panday administration of wanting to interfere with the independence of the judiciary. He said then that “powerful forces” were trying to strip him of his office or run him out of it.

Now one year later, the Chief Justice says he had hoped to use the opening of the 2000 law term to report “that the ship of the judiciary had safely navigated through the storm it was experiencing.

“How I wish that I could report that had happened,” he said this week.

At the heart of the controversy is whether or not the Attorney General has any responsibility for or control over the judiciary. Maharaj, no doubt with the backing of the government, insists that he has, and has made it clear that he would not serve as a “conduit” between the cabinet and the judiciary.

As far as he is concerned, someone must be accountable to the Parliament for any funds approved annually by legislators for the functioning of the judicial system.

But de La Bastide insists that providing such functions to the Attorney General would bring into question a number of issues. 

“Would it be an erosion of the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers? Would it be proper or permissible under our Constitution to give the Attorney General this sort of responsibility or control?” he asked at Monday’s ceremonial opening of the new law term here.

Principal of the Norman Manley Law School in Jamaica Keith Sobion, thinks a way of solving the problem would be to provide the Chief Justice with “some kind of ex-officio status in Cabinet.” He said this would have the effect of ensuring that “matters relating to the judiciary would go through the Chief Justice to Cabinet.”

“The judiciary would then have a right to sit at those Cabinet meetings dealing with the judiciary’s notes. It would be more direct,” Sobion said, noting that a minister taking such notes to cabinet would have to argue for the requests and his colleagues may not agree with him.

“So it would be better to give the judiciary limited access to cabinet to argue for what it wants, like more courts,” he added.

When the Chief Justice accused the government of interfering with the independence of the judiciary last year, it resulted in the establishment of two separate Commissions of Enquiry.

The Law Association, whose membership were clearly divided on the allegations, appointed the former Chief Justice of three Commonwealth States Telford Georges, as the sole commissioner to probe the allegations. Georges, a Dominican national has been described as “the most respected West Indian jurist living today”, and is a member of the London-based Privy Council.

His report found that there was “no adequate evidence” to support the charge as made by the Chief Justice of an attempt to drive him from the bench.

But the report did indicate that the role which the Attorney General was assuming was not properly his and was unconstitutional and inconsistent both with the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers.

“The Attorney General has no responsibility to Cabinet for the administration of justice. Such a responsibility would connote a degree of control over the operation of the judiciary, and could not properly be given to him,” Georges said in his report.

He also indicated that the “Attorney General has no power to approve or disapprove the release of funds to the judiciary.”

In his address to the new law term de La Bastide said over the past 12 months Maharaj had continued his efforts to stifle the judiciary of much needed funds to conduct its affairs. He listed among them, the need to employ five additional judges, the renewal of contracts for key personnel within the judiciary including computer aided transcript (CAT) reporters, and the future of the recently established Department of Court Administration.

“I am particularly unhappy about this state of affairs,” de La Bastide said.

However, the Attorney General says “there are certain administrative and financial rules which Cabinet laid down for disbursement of funds and the Attorney General ought to follow those rules.”

The Georges enquiry was not binding on the government, which instead appointed its own three-member commission that looked into “all aspects of the administration of justice in Trinidad and Tobago.”

That commission, headed by Lord Mackay of Clashfern in Britain, had promised to submit its finding at the end of August. It has not yet done so, but media reports said it was likely to be handed in within the next two weeks.

Maharaj has been quoted in the local media as saying that the report of the Mackay Commission “will determine who is right in the ongoing battle.”

The Chief Justice said if the government-appointed commission arrived at the same conclusion as Georges, “presumably this will mean the end of our difference with the executive over the role of the Attorney General.”

But the local media have noted that matter is likely to go on indefinitely, regardless of the findings of the Mackay Commission.

“The judicial system, one of the pillars of our democracy is already suffering and the ultimate casualty will not be judges or government ministers, but our quality of civic life and democracy,” the Trinidad Express said in an editorial Wednesday.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai