Gov’t loses parliament committees challenge

–Justice Chang says AG’s motion legally misconceived

Acting Chief Justice Ian Chang yesterday threw out the action brought by government to challenge the numerical make up of the National Assembly’s Committee of Selection, saying that the court had no jurisdiction in the matter since there was no evidence of a constitutional breach.

Justice Chang, who also found that the constitution does not mandate that the Committee of Selection and other parliamentary standing committees must reflect the proportionality of seats held by the parties in the National Assembly, concluded that the Attorney General Anil Nandlall’s constitutional motion had been “legally misconceived.”

Nandlall had filed the motion in February to challenge the numerical make up of the Committee of Selection and to settle the composition of others, saying that it ought to be reflective of the votes won by the parties at the last general elections. He proposed five seats on the committees go to the PPP/C, with four to APNU and one to the AFC, as opposed to the current make-up, which sees APNU and AFC with four seats and one seat, respectively, while the PPP/C has four seats.  Opposition Leader David Granger and Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman were named as the respondents in the case.

Justice Ian Chang

In his ruling, Justice Chang, however, said that the High Court has no jurisdiction to inquire into the exercise by the Speaker of his discretions under the Standing Orders of Parliament or into the implementation of his decisions by parliamentary staff “insofar as these decisions relate to the internal proceedings and procedures of Parliament.”

He said the principle of proportional representation regulating the distribution among the successful political parties of seats in the Standing Committee of Selection “may have been built in the internal process of the National Assembly by the Standing Orders 81 (2) and 94 as in New Zealand. But that does not at all mean that such a process was prescribed or mandated by the Constitu-tion.”

He added that the court “is unable to read into the provisions of the Constitution” a mandate that the composition of the parliamentary standing committees (more particularly the Standing Committee of Selection) must reflect proportionately the number of seats allocated to the successful political parties in the National Assembly.

“It therefore does appear that the complaint of the Attorney General has been made to the wrong forum. The forum for a complaint of this nature is the National Assembly itself and not the court,” Chang said, adding that the motion brought by Nandlall was “legally misconceived.” It was explained that the motion contains no allegation of fact capable of supporting a finding of constitutional breach by any of the respondents of the National Assembly.

“In other words, the court finds that the facts as alleged by the Attorney General in his Affidavit in support of Motion is legally incapable of supporting his claim to a constitutional breach. That being so, this court has no further jurisdiction to inquire into this matter. To do so would be to inquire into the internal proceedings of the National Assembly which the court has no jurisdiction to do,” Chang read.

After dismissing the motion, Justice Chang also awarded costs in the sums of $75,000 and $40,000, respectively, to lawyers representing the respondents. He noted that because of the public interest nature of the matter, the court did not see it fit to award a high level of costs to the respondents. “Indeed the court itself saw it fit to allow the Attorney General to expose to it all the yield of his research for jurisprudential purposes,” he noted.

Speaking to reporters moments after the ruling, attorney Basil Williams, a member of Granger’s legal team, said that from the inception they had maintained that the Parliament’s business is only for Parliament and that the court had no jurisdiction to dwell in its affairs even if there was an irregularity. He said that position was upheld by the judge.

He added that now that the budget debates are over “we will have to look at the question of getting those committees up and running.”

Asked how long that was likely to take, Williams said that this is within the domain of the Speaker of the National Assembly and both sides of the house. “I am sure that as soon as possibly that will be activated,” he added.

Asked if he foresees any problems in light of the recent budget cuts and the outcome of the case in the favour of the opposition, Williams, who is also an APNU MP, said “not really.” “We are grateful for the outcome in these matters. The people have voted for change and we believe that what has been happening to date is consistent with the cry of people for change,” he stressed.

Vice Chairman of APNU Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, who was also present at yesterday’s ruling, said that it was a predictable decision because he was not convinced by arguments made by the AG.

Nandlall was absent from yesterday’s proceedings as he had travelled to Trinidad following the  murder of his teenaged cousin there last week. His co-counsel, Naresh Harnanan, when questioned as to whether the decision would be appealed, said Nandlall will make a decision on the way forward once he reads the ruling.

Nandlall had moved to the court seeking a declaration that all standing committees and special select committees of the National Assembly of the 10th Parliament “are to be constituted in proportion” to the number of seats which each political party was allocated in the National Assembly based on the elections results.

He was also seeking a declaration that the composition of the Committee of Selection done by elections was a violation of the “principle of proportionality as contemplated by Articles 60 and 160 of the constitution and the provisions of the Elections Law (Amendment) Act No 15 of 2000 and accordingly, unconstitutional, unlawful, null, void and of no effect.”

“The composition of the Committee of Selection is violative of the principle of proportionality as contemplated by the Constitution since with this configuration the PPP/C with 32 seats has the same representation in the committee with APNU which only secured 26 seats. Therefore the PPP/C has only 44.44 percent of the representation with 32 seats and APNU has the same 44.44 percent representation, but with only 26 seats, leading to a disproportionality of almost five seats,” he had argued in the motion.

He had sought orders setting aside, revoking, cancelling or annulling the composition of the committee on the grounds that it was in breach of the Constitution and a breach of the provisions of the Elections Laws (Amendment) and further directing the respondents and their servants/agents to constitute all Standing Committees and Sectoral Committees and every other Committee of the 10th Parliament, whose composition is not expressly set out in the Constitution, with due regard to and in compliance with the principle of proportionality.

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